Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: The Glass Harmonica by Dorothee E. Kocks

Reviewed by Christina
[I received a complimentary copy of this book from a publicist in exchange for an honest review.]

Published: 2011

Full Title: The Glass Harmonica: a Sensualist's Tale

It's about
: This historical novel opens in Corsica near the end of the 18th century. Chjara Vallé is a young peasant girl who shows unusual musical and intellectual gifts as well as a shocking lack of modesty and a touch of rebellion. As a teenager she is sent to Paris to nurse an aging opium addict, and it's there, during the years immediately following the French Revolution, that she discovers a tantalizing new instrument: the glass harmonica.

In Paris Chjara also meets and falls in love with a Puritan-born American, Henry. Henry finds himself attending several clandestine gatherings where gentlemen pretend to make a study of sex; these eye-opening events give him the inspiration for a business venture which he keeps secret from Chjara. She accompanies him to New England and they spend their lives balancing and defining virtue and pleasure, sensuality and restraint, society and alienation.

I thought: Historical fiction about music and late Puritans and sexual freedom? What's not to like?

Yes, I enjoyed The Glass Harmonica very much. The prose didn't blow me away, but it is pleasantly descriptive and artful. It serves as a fitting conduit for an exciting story stuffed full of historical trivia about the performing arts, especially Phantasmagoria, Harlequins, and, of course, period instruments. There are also some interesting recurring themes as Chjara and Henry try to reconcile their sensual natures with the virtues imposed by religions of the period.

The book is quite steamy; more so than most other literary novels I read. But Ms. Kocks is a historian and I felt she remained true to the period in her depictions of erotic love. She doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination, but it's not vulgar either. I had a hard time letting myself believe certain plot elements, especially Chjara's casual promiscuity and the idea that a teenage peasant speaks six languages. But then, I'm not a historian. And I have read a couple of other books (The Coquette, A Midwife's Tale) that back up the idea that not everybody in post-revolutionary America was living chastely. I guess there's no harm in exaggerating that idea a little to fill out a character.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Here's an excellent review at the History News Network.
And you should watch/hear this:

Warnings: sex, and lots of it

Favorite excerpts: (opening paragraph)
"On the morning Chjara Vallé quickened in her mother's womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea, onto the shore of Bastia, Corsica. Light rose up the cathedral's bell tower, which recently had been painted apricot. Chjara's mother swept the courtyard - feet swollen, breasts like anchors. Inside the cathedral, five men stood with shoulders together and eyes closed, rehearsing the chant for the dead, their voices resonating against the stone walls."

What I'm reading next: Science Ink by Carl Zimmer