Monday, March 08, 2021

An Unofficial Marriage by Joie Davidow portrays an operatic, real-life love triangle from 19th-century Europe

Author and opera singer Davidow crafts her own dramatic production around a real-life love triangle that played out across mid-nineteenth-century Europe. 

Its principal figures are mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia, who lacks beauty but possesses an angelic voice; Ivan Turgenev, pampered Russian aristocrat and future literary star, who adores her immediately while watching her perform in 1843 St. Petersburg; and her older husband, Louis, who worships her too much to deny her heart’s desire, at least most of the time. 

Louis befriends the affable Ivan, and the Viardots become Ivan’s adopted family. Despite Pauline’s growing attachment to Ivan, though, she won’t leave Louis. Underlying the story’s emotional surges is the moving reality that there’s no real antagonist, only three passionate individuals caught in an impossible situation marked by self-sacrifice and periods of unfulfilled longing. 

Readers will be swept along with the trio, and Davidow writes beautifully about the artistic vision and technical demands involved in singing opera. The varied settings feel exquisitely vibrant, from chic, restful Baden-Baden, in Germany’s Black Forest, to politically fraught Paris during France’s Second Republic.

Joie Davidow's An Unofficial Marriage is published on March 16th by Arcade; I reviewed it initially for Booklist's February 1 issue. I've pasted in the book trailer below, which includes portraits of the cast and images of the novel's locales, accompanied by piano and the author's soaring soprano voice.

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