Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Oh, how close I came to rating this a book I highly recommend. I absolutely loved The Song of Hartgrove Hall (so much so that I dashed off a quick message to the author and sent it to her via Facebook, only to discover that Facebook won't deliver the message unless we're friends - ah well, I tried)! I relished every moment of the read and when it was over, wished I could experience it all over again for the first time. The writing was simply lyrical. I love books that are love songs to books. But, in this case, this book was a love song to music and it brought up so many emotions and memories within me of special musical moments in my own life. It tapped into that deep and abiding love of music, the stirring of the soul when music is performed well. The book itself read like a symphony.

Hartgrove Hall is falling down. The book begins with the return of three brothers to their family home of Hartgrove Hall after the war. And so the author begins to weave a story of familial bonds and place and home. Harry Fox-Talbot tells his tale in alternating narrations going from past to present and back again (reminiscent of Kate Morton's style). He tells of his relationships with his brothers and father in the past. He tells of his relationships with his children and grandchildren in the present (or close to it, anyway - right at the turn of the century). Both time periods reveal the depth of his character.

The young Harry Fox-Talbot is a budding composer in love with his brother's girl, Edie Rose. England is enthralled with Edie Rose's voice and Harry is no stranger to the lure of her charms. The older Harry, a recently widowed man, recognizes the impressive natural talent of his young grandson, Robin, a piano prodigy. As we learn of Robin's progress and Harry's tender nurture of his talent, we also learn of Harry's secrets and his past. It felt like viewing a kaleidoscope of various colors coming into focus at different times.

I was intrigued by the point of view chosen for the novel. Natasha Solomons chose to narrate the past sections in first person present tense and the modern portions in first person past tense. In doing so, she has given the past a more present feel and allowed us to view the present with a bit of detachment. I felt it was a remarkably good call.

The characters were rendered so well that they felt like living breathing beings. Moreover, the places simply sprang to life in the reader's eye. Solomons captured the characters and setting with such clear vision that you feel you are there with them. I could hear the music in my mind as I read of the symphonies and piano music played.

Another aspect of the book that I fully appreciated was the author's fine use of simile and metaphor. Some authors strain at these devices and you can tell that the effort is forced. This author's use felt thoroughly naturally and fresh and apt. Here are a few brilliant examples:

"If grief is the thug who punches you in the gut, then loneliness is his goon who holds back your arms and renders you helpless before the onslaught."

"My memories of Edie were like dandelion clocks in the wind, winnowing in every direction. I'd lost all chronology. I missed every Edie at once. The young and terribly glamorous woman I'd met after the war..."

"When I sit down to play, a dozen keys ping off as my fingers touch them and spray onto the floor like an old woman spitting out a mouthful of loose teeth."

"They're not really a choir: four large men piped like sausage meat into straining woolen suits."

I found myself right alongside the narrator contemplating the challenges of nurturing a young prodigy, the difficulties of regaining composing talents after such a significant loss, and the strain of coveting your sibling's spouse, The music bits were like candy to a person on a diet. I couldn't get enough of it. Here's another beautiful passage that so thoroughly captures the issues presented:

"It is a terrible thing for someone to reach their peak as a child. If one scales Rachmaninov before the age of twelve, then what other mountains are left, either critically or intellectually? I believe it is worst of all for those trebles, those astounding boy singers with a dizzying purity of sound who dazzle the world for a brief season before their voices crack and break. I pity those children most of all. They lose not only their career but also their instruments. They are like piano players who have lost their hands."

As young as the author appears, I found it interesting that she so capably expressed the dilemmas of old age and grief. There were many passages articulating how it feels to have friends and loved ones die off before you. When the narrator's friend Marcus dies, he observes how dissatisfying it is that while he is amused to find that the old man died listening to himself conduct, there is no one left to share the amusement with because the two he would have shared it with - Edie and Marcus - are now both dead.

Really, I was only held back from a highly recommended rating by a few unsavory bits. At one point, the old composer smokes marijuana with his cronies. Moreover, when there is adultery, I want to see it portrayed with the full feeling of consequences and wrong-doing. Although the narrator does regret the fallout from his adultery, he doesn't regret acting on his desire for the love. He wonders whether his child is, indeed, his or not, but doesn't feel the level of remorse I would wish to convey. So often, it seems like the message sent is that adultery is acceptable because the parties involved move on and the love is so intense that it is justified. So, I guess it is primarily my religious bent that kept me from whole-hearted recommendation.

If you can overlook the adulterous undertones throughout the book and ignore the drug use, then the book will certainly appeal to you. If you love old English houses, this is the book for you. Furthermore, if you have an intense love of music (especially classical) then you will relish this read tremendously. I have a feeling I will return to this author again and might even reread this book at some point for the beauty of the experience.

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