Books Are Pretty

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Spanish Bow.

One of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of parenthood is being able to watch the excitement of children during the holidays, and knowing the source of that pure joy comes from hard parental work and careful planning.

What we also know is that, as parents, we give an untold number of gifts to our children every day, often without even realizing it. We give our political leanings and religious convictions, we pass on quirky facial expressions and the occasional salty word, we sometimes even pass on fear, such as a squeamishness about spiders or anxiety over thunderstorms.

And then there's the things we never gave them that they absorbed and took for their own anyway, like my own love of The Eagles and their Hotel California album, which I associate with my father listening to their music in our family room. I remember vividly my father's filing system, and could probably pick it out of the hundreds of albums in his cabinet while blindfolded.

These gifts have such a major impact on the shape of our children's personalities and lives it's a wonder we don't crack from the pressure.

Andromeda Romano-Lax's debut novel The Spanish Bow begins with such a gift. At the time of his birth, the mother of Feliu Delargo tells her older son Enrique to make sure the baby is named Feliz, or Happy. "Not a family name, not a local name, just a hope."

Due to a clerical error, his name is misspelled, and for the rest of his life, he was Almost Happy.

Shortly after his birth in 1892, Feliu is given a second gift, an object from a random pile of items sent home from his father, a soldier serving in the Spanish-American war. First to choose, Feliu pores over each item, a compass, a toy tiger, a glossy stick, a blue bottle, and a diary. Paralyzed by the thought of selecting the wrong gift, Feliu selects the one that makes no immediate sense, the glossy stick. His mother tells him it is a bow for a cello, and sends him for music lessons with the local master, an instructor with a piano and a violin. Feliu selects the violin in order to use the bow from his father, and saws away dutifully at it until a musical trio, led by the flamboyant child prodigy, pianist Justo Al-Cerraz, and his accompanists at the violin and the cello. When Feliu hears the cello, his world clicks into place, and it is behind the large instrument that he finds his destiny.

The Spanish Bow spans fifty years of the life of famous musician Feliu Delargo, loosely based on the life of the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, and his tempestuous relationship with Al-Cerraz and, eventually, with ethereal beauty Aviva, a Jewish Italian violinist whose obsession with something she has lost threatens to destroy her.

True to his name, Feliu is almost, but never quite, happy. After his mother flees a dangerous relationship with a local Don, she and Feliu take up residence in Barcelona, where he hones his craft, pushing himself mercilessly, first with an aging cellist whose career was destroyed by his politics, then on the Barcelona streets, and later Madrid, where his talent propels him into the royal court.

As political tensions mount and Spanish fascist Franco rises to power, Feliu anguishes over whether to remain politically neutral like Al-Cerraz, or if he should, as his former teacher urged, to use his talent for good.

Romano-Lax has created a rich and lively novel, steeped in early 20th century Spanish history and culture. As Feliu passes through the years, he finds himself more and more unable to lose himself in music, and becomes no longer sure if he should. The complexities of his life and the onslaught of fascism bring his passion for music, Aviva, and politics to a head, creating a grand, sweeping novel the reader can immerse herself into.

P.S. - and on the Real Life front, I was given an advance copy as well as the finished product, one of which I gave to one of my coworkers. She approached me this week and told me her husband had taken the book away from her and had locked himself in the bathroom to read it. "He won't give it back to me until he's done," she complained.

Sometimes I think I should quit spending the time to write reviews and just copy down other people's reactions to the books in question. I think that may make the reviews more compelling.

The Spanish Bow
by Andromeda Romano-Lax
September 2007 by Harcourt
Hardcover, 580 pp
ISBN: 978-0-15-101542-9

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