Monday, February 15, 2021

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan, a sweeping portrait of the Jazz Age

Writing about music – transmuting one artistic medium into another – can be a challenge for novelists. Not only must they convey the sounds and rhythms for the reader, but also the elegant physicality of the performance as well as the powerful feelings that the sounds draw forth. When done well, the result is a full-bodied, sensory experience.

Mitchell James Kaplan accomplishes all this in his third work of historical fiction, Rhapsody, which depicts the decade-long affair between musical luminaries Katharine “Kay” Swift and George Gershwin.

Dubious about popular music and its latest promotional darling, Katharine attends the “Experiment in Modern Music” concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall in February 1924. She finds herself unexpectedly enraptured by Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue:

His fingers tapped the keys repeatedly; scurried up and down, passing each other; meshed together; flew apart to opposite corners of the keyboard … At the heart of the soaring, lyrical passage two-thirds of the way through, Katharine forgot about the funny parts, the exuberant parts, the piano-against-orchestra quipping and cajoling parts. The sadness and beauty of it enveloped her.

The story follows Katharine, a classically trained pianist, through America’s Jazz Age, from her early house concerts with a trio of friends through her emergence as a composer of national stature. Though little-known today, she was the first woman to write the complete score to a hit musical, and Rhapsody brings her accomplishments back into the spotlight. Her marriage to banker James Warburg is presented without stereotype. Their union is one of mutual affection rather than a grand passion; James frequently dallies with other women on his many trips abroad, and he tolerates her growing relationship with Gershwin, to a point.

author Mitchell James Kaplan
More than a traditional work of biographical fiction, Rhapsody devotes ample time to describing the political and sociocultural milieu that shaped the lead characters. It explains, within the fictional context, why Gershwin’s creative mashup of varied musical styles felt so attractive and groundbreaking. Cultural icons of the ‘20s and ‘30s, among them Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Parker, and Fred and Adele Astaire weave realistically into the narrative. 

Gershwin and Kay (his nickname for her, which she adopts) discuss people’s shifting cultural attitudes following the Great War, anchoring readers in the prevailing ideas of the era, and there’s much here that’s relevant for today, too. Details on the controversy surrounding the writing and staging of the opera Porgy and Bess show that issues of representation and cultural appropriation are hardly new.

A thoughtful portrait of its characters and their time, Rhapsody will carry readers along with verve and feeling.

Mitchell James Kaplan's Rhapsody will be published in March by Gallery/Simon & Schuster; thanks to the publisher for access via Edelweiss.  

As part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, there's a tour-wide giveaway of two paperback copies of Rhapsody (US only).  Please use the following form to enter.  Open through March 12th to readers 18 years of age and older.  Good luck!

Rhapsody Tour


  1. So happy you enjoyed Rhapsody! Thank you for being on the tour!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

  2. Thanks for organizing it! Sorry to be so late approving the comment - it got tagged as spam by mistake.

  3. I really wanted to love this book, but it frustrated me so much, I had to stop reading it in the middle. Glad you liked it!

  4. Sorry it wasn't to your taste. If you're not enjoying a book, I agree it's better to put it down rather than continue... there are plenty of others out there!