I think the fact that I keep getting historical novels landing on my doormat is someone in the ether’s idea of a sign that I am missing out on something in my usual refusal to read them. I have been vehement in my dislike of them in the past – pseudo historical settings are not a favourite of mine – if I want to read about the war, I’ll read a book written during the war, thanks. It’s a product of my frugal Sarf East Landan (I don’t have the accent, promise) upbringing that I hear the words ‘free’ and say ‘I’ll take it’, no matter what it is, but when free historical novels are offered to me, I do think twice. Somehow, however, The Maestro’s Voice intrigued me – opera, Naples, mafia, suspense – and so I agreed to take a copy for review. I’m really glad I did – because I loved it. I may now be a historical novel convert. Though I will never, ever, read a Philippa Gregory novel. I have my reasons.
This is a long, twisting saga, telling the story of Rocco Campobello, ‘the Maestro’, the most famous tenor in the world when the novel opens in the mid 1920s. A cold, career oriented man, he has just had a near death experience, and when he revives, something has happened to soften him, and to make him want to go back to his home town of Naples and make amends for past mistakes. Rocco, despite being immensely wealthy and powerful, is not a free agent; he has been controlled by Don Graziani, chief of the Naples mafia, since he was a young man. Going against his wishes at any point would cause serious consequences.
Rocco’s illness that led to his near death experience has rendered him unable to sing. This is a serious issue for Don Graziani, as he has a stake in Rocco’s earnings, and it is in his interests to get Rocco back on the stage as soon as possible. However, Rocco’s loyal secretary, Boldoni, and voice coach, Pickering, who are two of the most wonderful characters in the book, are adamant that Rocco will not be healthy enough to perform again in public for months, and Rocco is kept sequestered in his Naples villa, a shadow of his former self. Don Graziani is not satisfied with this, and when his errant and brutal son Bruno returns from New York, having made a mess of things in America, they hot up the pressure on Rocco to get back on the stage, enlisting the help of his glamorous, estranged American wife Molly, to persuade him to do some recordings, with them getting a cut of the profits, of course.
Rocco, however, has other ideas, and in his quest to make amends with an old friend, ends up falling in love for the first time, and taking on a new protégée. But with pressure all around him, his health failing, and the lives of his dearest friends threatened, Rocco has no choice but to meet their demands. However, things are not as straightforward as they seem, and the lives of those intertwined with the Maestro become complicated in ways they could never have foreseen as the Grazianis fight and scheme for supremacy of the life and career of the demon haunted Maestro, and attempt to force out anyone who threatens to stand in their way.
This is such a fantastic novel – there’s so much going on, and I haven’t even mentioned half of it, or some of the characters. I got completely wrapped up in the story, and my heart broke at the descriptions of Rocco’s childhood in the labyrinthine slums of Naples, and how he turned his back on his adoring father in order to pursue his dream of stardom. It’s a thrilling and twist filled mystery novel, but at the same time, it’s also about a man discovering who he truly is, and realising that his career will never fill the void in his soul. It’s wonderfully characterised, brilliantly atmospheric, and absolutely gripping. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a bit overlong, at five hundred pages, which would be my only criticism, but it’s definitely worth the slog.
Back to Persephone reading now…House-Bound continues to be lovely, and I’ll try to post about that and Jane Brocket’s wonderful talk at our Women’s Institute meeting last night, either tomorrow or on Friday, though my week is going to be a busy one, what with it being my birthday tomorrow and all..