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.



Thursday, March 04, 2021

W. S. Winslow visits small-town Maine across the 20th century in The Northern Reach

There’s a large genealogical chart at the beginning of W. S. Winslow’s debut novel, a collection of integrated stories set in and around the small coastal town of Wellbridge, Maine, across the twentieth century and beyond. The timeline for this saga is as original as the many individuals populating it. The tales move forward and back in time, sometimes zipping along the chart on the diagonal as they center on separate families – the Lawsons, Moody, Baineses, and Martins – linked by blood, marriage, and illicit relationships.

The Northern Reach recounts how the unforgiving environment molds its characters, who have mixed or antagonistic reactions to their hometown. The austerity of the locale suffuses many lives, and happiness can be as fleeting as the summer temperatures. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the hero of one story ends up as the villain in a tale set a generation later.

The most sympathetic characters are those who consider themselves outsiders – those who escape from Wellbridge or want to. Among them are Liliane, a Frenchwoman who in 1958 meets fisherman Mason Baines, a handsome sailor in the merchant marines, marries him, and raises two children. Her foreign ways are denigrated by her narrow-minded mother-in-law, Edith. Edith appears as an elderly woman in the opening story, her mind fading as she stares out to sea following her husband’s and favorite son’s deaths in a boating accident.

Winslow incorporates dark humor in the tale of Victoria Moody, who returns to Wellbridge after ten years’ absence to attend her father’s funeral. Relieved to have left her fiancé back in Portland, away from the “horror show” of her embarrassing family, she finds it impossible to leave the past behind. Another insightful story shows a woman’s ghost coming face to face with her children’s true feelings, learning details they never spoke in her presence during her lifetime.

In the earliest accounts, especially, the bleakness can be overwhelming, but the descriptions create memorable images nonetheless: “Above the reach low clouds sleepwalk across the February sky. Today they are fibrous, striated, like flesh being slowly torn from bone.” Other observations about troubled lives pique the imagination with their realness. Admirers of character-centered historical fiction will find much to like in these introspective stories.

The Northern Reach is published by Flatiron this month; thanks to the publisher for the e-copy.

Monday, March 01, 2021

An interview with the London Monster, a guest post by Donna Scott

Today Donna Scott, author of The London Monster (Atlantic Publishing, 2020) presents a guest post as written by her lead character, Sophie Carlisle, a journalist in late 18th-century London. Disguised as a man, she seeks to tell stories about the darker, seedier side of the city at a time when a disturbing figure nicknamed the London Monster has been attacking women on the streets. These incidents (and the London Monster himself) are taken from history.  

~

An Interview with the London Monster
By Sophie Carlisle c1790

I was granted an interview with the elusive London Monster on several conditions:
--We would speak in a small room set up with an opaque screen between us.
--I had to enter our little room first—prior to his arrival—and leave only after his departure.
--I had to keep my back to the screen at all times, for he guarded his identity as if it were a precious stone.
-- I was not permitted to ask any personal questions which might lead to his capture.


Sophie: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today.
My pleasure, I assure you.

Sophie: What have you done to earn the moniker ‘The London Monster’?

I don’t particularly care for that title. I am most certainly not a monster. I simply adore women. The curve of their breasts above their low necklines, their slender waists, their promising lips. I find it all quite provocative. I am pulled toward them like the tides to the moon. I might approach a woman and offer a kind word or two and then a proposition. The circumstances—whether the object of my affection sways her hips when she walks or strides forward with impatience and arrogance—will determine how I choose my words. The lady who entertains me first with the rhythmic swish of her skirts as I follow behind her, will always get the kinder introduction. Perhaps a compliment before I express my true wishes. But it is the haughty jilt who will take the brunt of it. I might whisper a vulgarity in her delicate pink ear, comment on my growing arousal or the bounce of her breasts. What brings me the most pleasure is that first gasp, the initial moment of shock which registers in her raised brow and parted lips, a sure sign I have offended. After that, it is not exactly pleasure I feel, but anger that burns my chest—a building rage. Every desire I’ve ever had spills freely from my tongue and coats her like the soot on a hearth’s bricks. She might fight to get away—most of them do—but I am stronger, faster. And it is only then that I draw my blade. I presume that is what has earned me the name.

Sophie: The papers have described you as a miscreant, wretch, and villain. Do you agree with their assessments?
You would do better to stay away from the papers, especially the Morning Chronicle and the Oracle. Both are shameful in their descriptions of me. Actually, the World is the most accurate and purports the women as the real monsters. Their histrionics have placed all men in danger, for any man could be accused of being me with one wrong look or harmless suggestion.

author Donna Scott

Sophie: How many women have you attacked? Some reports are as high as 56.

Is that so? I daresay that number is a bit high. You forget that there are imitators, charlatans, if you will, who desire my notoriety and, therefore, inflict harm upon some women in order to get it. They even work in groups or pairs, as I understand it. That is most certainly not my style. I only approach the fairest, so if a lady should return home with a scratch and torn skirts, she instantly gains in popularity and acquires the prestige of being one of my beauties. And you forget the fact some women claim being attacked simply for the celebrity it brings them. It is also a clever way of getting their husbands to pay for a new bolt of cloth to replace the ripped garments. So, you may attribute perhaps 45 or so attacks to me. I am not one to count that sort of thing.

Sophie: Are you ever afraid of getting caught?

At times, when I sit alone and wait for darkness to fall, my mind wanders into those dark places. I’ll enjoy a brandy or perhaps port and, in the quiet, that irrational fear may enter my thoughts. Will I be recognized or caught? But when I think of the wonderful possibilities of the night ahead, those thoughts flit away like a bird called by the chirp of a paramour. The truth is that I have tipped my hat to the police—Bow Street Runners—on many occasions as they search the dark for ‘the monster’. They are quite noticeable, wearing bright red waistcoats and carrying truncheons emblazoned with authoritative bronze crests, and therefore easy to avoid, if necessary. I do admit, I find the closeness of danger exhilarating.

Even as we speak, I know I am being hunted. And I know by whom. But those who pursue me are looking for a thin vulgar-looking man, or a short narrow-faced man with regular features, or a big-nosed man with curly hair. I have been said to wear all black clothing or a brown greatcoat or a blue silk coat. I wear a cocked hat with or without a cockade, my hair worn loose down my back or in a queue. Essentially, I look like everyone or no one at all. So, you ask if I think I might be caught... Never.


 


Both renderings represent the Monster attacking women in the streets of London.


About The London Monster by Donna Scott:

In 1788, exactly one hundred years before Jack the Ripper terrorizes the people of London, a sexual miscreant known as the London Monster roams the streets in search of his next victim… 

Thomas Hayes, having lost his mother in a vicious street assault, becomes an underground pugilist on a mission to rid the streets of violent criminals. But his vigilante actions lead to him being mistaken for the most terrifying criminal of all. 

Assistance arrives in the form of Sophie Carlisle, a young journalist with dreams of covering a big story, though she is forced to masquerade as a man to do it. Trapped in an engagement to a man she doesn’t love, Sophie yearns to break free to tell stories that matter about London’s darker side—gaming, prostitution, violence—and realizes Tom could be the one to help. Together, they come up with a plan. 

Straddling the line between his need for vengeance and the need to hide his true identity as a politician’s son becomes increasingly difficult as Tom is pressured to win more fights. The more he wins, the more notoriety he receives, and the greater the chance his identity may be exposed—a revelation that could jeopardize his father’s political aspirations and destroy his family’s reputation.

Sophie is also in danger as hysteria spreads and the attacks increase in severity and frequency. No one knows who to trust, and no one is safe—Tom included, yet he refuses to end the hunt. Little does he realize, the monster is also hunting him.

About the Author:

Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction. Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia. She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University. She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband. Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews. Her newest novel, The London Monster, was released in November 2020. To learn about new releases and special offers, please sign up for Donna’s newsletter.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Zorrie by Laird Hunt observes a woman's 20th-century life in the rural Midwest

Deliberately echoing the form of Gustave Flaubert’s novella, “A Simple Heart,” Hunt celebrates the majesty and depth in a life that may superficially seem undistinguished. Zorrie Underwood is a farmer in central Indiana, and as she and readers survey her 70-or-so years, her joys and sorrows are deeply observed and felt. 

Raised by a cranky aunt, Zorrie is left homeless at 21, in 1930, and travels though the countryside doing odd jobs for food. Following a stint painting clock faces at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, she settles in her home state and marries a kindly couple’s farmer son, enduring setbacks and grief while adhering to daily routines. 

With compassion and realism, Hunt recounts Zorrie’s story straightforwardly, with setting-appropriate dialogue and an eye for sensory details: the glint of fireflies, the clay soil’s rich scent, the “mineral-sweet taste of warm blackberries picked off the vines.” Zorrie’s relationship with her neighbor Noah Summers, the eccentric protagonist of Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana (2003), is presented with expressive subtlety. A beautifully written ode to the rural Midwest.

Zorrie was published by Bloomsbury this month, and I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the Nov. 1st issue of Booklist.  I was impressed by how well Hunt encapsulated a full life within a novella of fewer than 200 pages.  Living in the rural Midwest myself (Illinois rather than Indiana), I recognized the landscapes of the story.  You can find more background on the Radium Dial Company and the young female dial-painters employed there in Kate Moore's bestselling The Radium Girls.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Interview with David Blixt about his discovery of Nellie Bly's long-lost novels

It's not every day that a novelist makes a significant historical discovery. During the research process for his next book about undercover reporter Elizabeth Cochrane (pen name Nellie Bly), David Blixt uncovered the text of eleven full-length novels she had written over 125 years ago, but which had been presumed lost. The Lost Novels of Nellie Bly will be published in book form on March 16th, with new introductions by David and other details that put her work into context. I enjoyed chatting with him recently about this fascinating find.  Please read on.

Could you provide some background to Nellie Bly’s fiction-writing career? For example, why did she switch from reporting to writing fiction, and what was the New York Family Story Paper?


From Bly’s letters, we know that becoming a novelist was a long-held ambition. She often referred to other authors who started off as journalists as examples she wished to emulate. And by 1889 she was famous enough to get her paper, The New York World, to publish her first novel in serialized form through the summer. The Mystery Of Central Park was then released in the fall in book form, just before she left on her race around the world.

What we know now, due to this discovery, is that even as her first novel was hitting the stands she was finishing her second. Eva the Adventuress is clearly based on the scandal that gripped New York in the fall of 1889, the trial of Eva Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton’s great-grandson. (For those interested in the scandal itself, here’s a run-down). Bly interviewed Eva Hamilton in prison, and then had only three weeks to knock out what ended up being her longest novel, more than double the length of The Mystery Of Central Park.

It had to have been finished before she left on her race, because the first chapters appeared in print in late December, in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper. This was a weekly eight-page fiction anthology from her book publisher, Norman Munro. It was aimed at women (he had a detective paper aimed at young boys as well), and filled with adventures and romances replete with melodrama and cliffhangers.

What I wonder—because I don’t know—is if Munro started publishing the story without a contract with Bly. She might have sent it to him before she left, but there’s no evidence of a contract. Yet I can see him wanting to capitalize on the huge publicity her race around the world—her name was everywhere! The first chapters appear with the phrase “By Nellie Bly, who is now attempting to make the circuit of the world in seventy-five days.”

What we do know is that when she got back, he offered her an enormous contract—$40,000 over three years. When you consider that she made at most $5,000 a year at the World, that’s a veritable fortune.

I think the switch from reporting happened for several reasons. First, the money was excellent. Second, her longing to be recognized as an author. Third, she felt she was not given proper thanks for boosting the World’s circulation higher than ever before. Joseph Pulitzer never even offered her thanks.

Possibly the most important reason, I think she was burned out. Three years of “stunt” reporting had taken a toll. By the summer of 1888 she was beginning to speak of headaches (which coincided with her first death threats). By the fall of ’89 she was telling of visiting seven doctors to try and help her past what I imagine were stress migraines. And through 1890 and into ’91 she speaks of severe, crippling depression. I think the novels were her way through. Noticeably, when she returned to reporting in ’93, she refused to do any more undercover or risky stunts. She would only ever risk her life again when she reported on World War One, over twenty years later.

As a librarian, I love hearing about discoveries made through research into primary sources. How did you stumble upon the existence of these novels?


Writing a follow-up to What Girls Are Good For, I was looking for a very small detail—how much Bly was paid for her first (non-fiction) book, Ten Days In A Madhouse. I tried looking for any contracts mentioning Munro, just to get a ballpark figure. Coming up empty, I dug deeper into Munro, and noticed in a list of books and newspapers he had published something called The London Story Paper.


Now, I knew about Bly writing for his New York Family Story Paper. Thanks to her letters, we’ve long known of two novels she wrote, Eva The Adventuress and New York By Night (which is probably her best fiction work). But only one issue has survived, containing three chapters of Eva. The rest, I knew, were lost to time.

So when I saw the London Story Paper on the list, I thought, “No, it couldn’t be. Munro didn’t make a knock-off of his own paper in London, did he?”

Turns out, he did. I plugged the name into a search engine, and found that the complete archives for the London Story Paper were available at newspaperarchives.com. I bought a subscription and ran a search for Nellie Bly, and hit the jackpot. Not two novels. Eleven novels. More than anyone had ever imagined she had written.



Unfortunately, nearly a third of the pages were illegible. Worse, the microfilm only existed in three locations—London, Sydney, and Toronto. So in the space between Christmas and New Year’s, 2019, I drove to the University of Toronto to get close-up scans of the faded pages. Once I was certain I had everything, I started the work of sorting and transcribing.

Your website mentions that the new versions of the novels come “complete with the articles that inspired the stories.” How did you match up the New York World articles and her stories – did she write about what her inspirations were, or did you have to do original research on your own to figure this out?

Well, her first novel was clearly based on her 1888 exposé of a serial procurer of girls in Central Park. And the Eva Hamilton story was clearly ripped from the headlines of 1889. So I knew from the start that she had drawn on her reporting to inspire her fiction.

With that in mind, I began collecting all her articles (to my amazement no one has ever done that before). With those at hand, I could easily see which articles were used for inspiration in the novels. Most often they’re fodder for a dramatic scene—a visit to the “veiled prophetess,” working in a paper-box factory, a story on women becoming doctors. Blackwell’s Island crops up several times, and in one novel she even names a cruel, murderous nurse after a real one from her stay there.

When I finished, I found myself with all of Bly’s articles for the World, so I’m also releasing them in four volumes. She wrote many, many more articles than most people realize. Most fascinating are her interviews, most often with women. We get our very best interview with Susan B. Anthony thanks to Bly. The first two volumes of Nellie Bly’s World are out now, and I’ll finish up the other two later this year.

Among the novels, are there any that you felt were especially illuminating or told a particularly compelling story?

As I mentioned earlier, I think her third novel, New York By Night, is her best. It’s a fun detective story with a genuine twist. It’s the only one where I would have liked to see the lead characters return. After that there’s much that’s interesting, but she strikes upon a formula that she adheres to pretty strictly. 

In terms of pure wildness, In Love With A Stranger takes the cake. It’s one madcap episode after another. Often her heroines are kinda passive, but not in that one! She’s stalking the millionaire she fell in love with at first sight, and is determined to win his love by any means, disguising herself as a ghost, a medium, a reporter, a boy, an opium addict, a card-sharp, and a marble statue. As I say, it’s wild.

As windows into Bly’s mind, there are two particular repeating trends worth noting. First, the idea of being orphaned. Before she took the nom de plume Nellie Bly, she first wrote under the name Lonely Orphan Girl. Her father died when she was six, and even though her mother lived on, Bly very much sympathized with orphans. She spent the last years of her life trying to find homes for orphans in New York.

The second repeating theme is suicide by drowning. In nearly every novel a despairing young woman throws herself into a river to end her sorrows. Water and drowning come up incredibly frequently, enough to make one wonder if she was grappling with that idea herself.

As an author who’s been writing fiction about Nellie Bly, what discoveries did you make about her as a writer, or as a person, from reading these long-lost works of hers?

On the humorous side, she never met a word she could not turn into an adverb. And she had a gift for names. Ruby Sharp. Dimple Darlington. Merribelle Harleigh. Amor Escandon. Christmas Cherry. I love her names.

On the serious side, I do wonder about her romantic entanglements. So often love, in her novels, is overpowering, leaving both men and women helpless. Again and again her characters justify the worst behavior for “love.” And yet very rarely does what she describe resemble actual affection. Clearly this is something I’m grappling with as I work on my next novel about her.

But that’s a joy, having a unique insight into Bly’s life. Being the only person in the world who has read all of Bly’s work, if only for a short time, is a gift that a writer can only dream of. I am very lucky to have found them—probably as close as I’ll ever come to finding a lost Shakespeare play. And I’m anxious for people to read these and discover a hidden side to one of the most amazing women in American history.

~

For more details on David Blixt and his work, please visit www.davidblixt.com.  

Friday, February 19, 2021

24 new and forthcoming historical novels in honor of Black History Month

Looking for some intriguing historical reads to add to your TBR piles?  February is Black History Month, and while many of these books are forthcoming later this spring, summer, or fall, the gallery below should give you reading ideas throughout the rest of the year.  With settings spanning the previous few centuries, these novels center Black voices, present vibrant characters, and reveal many stories previously untold in historical fiction. They're from a mix of established authors and talented newcomers. Links for each novel go to its Goodreads page. Some of these titles have been featured on the blog before but are worth mentioning again.


Nekesa Afia's Dead Dead Girls (Berkley, June) opens a new mystery series set in 1920s Harlem, while WWII fiction fans will want to glom onto Kaia Alderson's Sisters in Arms (William Morrow, Aug.) focuses on members of the "Six Triple Eight," the all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps and their notable service overseas. Denny S. Bryce's Wild Women and the Blues (Kensington, March) is an exciting multi-period story set in Jazz Age Chicago and contemporary times, featuring a talented dancer. Artist, novelist, and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud is perhaps best known for her historical novel Sally Hemings, from 1979; her latest, The Great Mrs. Elias (Amistad, Aug.), is the first novel about Hannah Elias, a wealthy Black woman from early 20th-century America. Stacy D. Flood's The Salt Fields (Lanternfish, Mar.), a novella, follows a man on his train journey from South Carolina to a new life up north, and The Conductors (Mariner, Mar.), Nicole Glover's historical fantasy debut, introduces Hetty Rhodes, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, in her crime-solving career in Philadelphia after the Civil War.




Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie (Algonquin, Mar.), set during Reconstruction, takes as inspiration one of the first Black women physicians in America. Set during the same timeframe in Georgia, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (Little, Brown, July), another debut, centers on two brothers, hoping to earn enough money to head north to find their mother, who are hired to work on a white farmer's land. The Civil Rights movement is the focus of Suzette D. Harrison's The Girl at the Back of the Bus (Bookouture, Feb.), which alternates between 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, and the present. An infant girl's kidnapping in 1930s Harlem prompts an investigation in Karla FC Holloway's historical mystery Gone Missing in Harlem (TriQuarterly, Apr.)  Ladee Hubbard's The Rib King (Amistad, Jan.), set in the early 20th century, incorporates a tale of how racist iconography is used to sell food products, rib sauce in this case, and how this exploitation played out among those affected.  When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown (Thomas Nelson, Apr.) takes us to small-town, Depression-era Georgia with the story of a young Black woman coming of age during a time when the KKK is wreaking havoc in her community.



The debut novel from acclaimed poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper, May) investigates one family's journey in Georgia across two centuries. From the queen of African American romance, Beverly Jenkins' latest, Wild Rain (Avon, Mar.) is the love story between a female rancher in 19th-century Wyoming and a man slated to interview her for a Black newspaper. Sadeqa Johnson's Yellow Wife (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), set in the mid-19th century, recounts the tale of a young woman hoping to be granted her freedom but who finds herself returned to slavery and working in a notorious Virginia jail (based on a true story). Robert Jones, Jr.'s The Prophets (Putnam, Feb.) is getting a lot of buzz for its lyrical portrait of the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Situated in the same Southern locale as her Mama Ruby series, Mary Monroe's Mrs. Wiggins (Kensington, Mar.) takes place in Depression-era Alabama and follows a determined woman who engineers a supposedly perfect life until secrets start unraveling. Bethany C. Morrow's So Many Beginnings (Feiwel & Friends, Sept.)called "a Little Women remix" in the subtitle, tells the story of four Black sisters — you can guess their names — growing into young women in the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island during the US Civil War. 



Latest in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins historical crime series, Blood Grove (Mulholland, Feb.) takes place in Vietnam-era southern California, circa 1969. In The Personal Librarian (Berkley, June), bestselling novelists Victoria Christopher Murray and Marie Benedict team up to reveal the life of Belle da Costa Greene, librarian for J.P. Morgan in early 20th-century NYC, who passed as white to move up in her career field. Vanessa Riley has two historicals out this year: first Island Queen (William Morrow, July), unveiling the story of Dorothy "Doll" Kirwan Thomas, born into slavery, who became an entrepreneur, major Caribbean landowner, and royal mistress. An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler (Kensington, Apr.) continues her Rogues and Remarkable Woman multicultural Regency romance series. Dawnie Walton debuts with The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (37 Ink, Mar.), described as an oral history of an early '70s rock band featuring a proto-Afro punk female artist and white English folksinger. And Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, Sept.), by two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead, focuses on a family man in '60s Harlem who gets pulled into crooked activity and finds himself living a double life.

Which books are on your personal wishlists?  Please leave recommendations for these and any others in the comments.

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