Hardcover, 280 pages
Luminis Books, Nov. 12, 2012
Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance
From the opening sentences, this novel captured my undivided, rapt attention: "Maile Manoa's singing came from the ocean, people said, from the mountains, from flowers. It floated on the wind like a message sent to each listener, a voice of ancient beauty, ancient power." These beautiful sentences literally sent chills up my spine with the power of their melodious rhythm. The images of nature the author conjured floated through my mind as I savored these words. I was totally enthralled....
This is a novel of such intense passion -- the passion of art. It tells the story of a gifted young girl obsessed with the need to sing, to find the music within her soul.
She comes from a poor Hawaiian family, growing up in a culture totally alien to the traditions of classical music. Yet, from the very first moment she hears a Verdi aria in sixth grade, Maile knows that she is meant for the opera stage. And so, even as she helps to support her family with her singing, Maile secretly squirrels away money of her own for the future.
After successfully graduating from college, she leaves for music studies in New York, with the financial help of her family, which comes at great sacrifice for them. Even though they don't understand her need to sing opera, they fully support her dream.
After a year and a half in New York, Maile travels to Salzburg, Austria, with a letter of recommendation from her teacher, Leah Renska.
In Salzburg, she encounters, and becomes immersed in, European culture for the first time, succeeding in becoming the student of the great Professor Aleksander Jann, who was himself a renowned opera star in years past.
She also meets Karl, a fellow student at the Mozarteum, who plays both piano and French horn. Their relationship blooms into love in the middle of corruption and political intrigue, as tensions with the then Soviet Union grow.
And then, Maile is finally noticed by the great Werner von Wehlen, the legendary conductor. As her opportunity arrives, so does a heartrending choice, for she is confronted by two alternate paths -- following the dictates of her conscience, or abandoning them in the name of art, and the career she has been studying and struggling for all her life. How can she throw it all away? And yet....how can she live with herself if she doesn't?
I have read few books that have touched me as deeply as this one has. The only one that comes to mind is the equally beautiful and poignant tale of a young Jewish painter struggling to follow his muse in spite of the constraints imposed by his family and his Orthodox faith. That memorable book is titled My Name Is Asher Lev, by the great Chaim Potok. Both novels deal with the artist's dilemma -- to find his or her creative voice, in the midst of the pressures exerted by an uncomprehending world. In Maile's case, however, it's not so much her family that she must contend with, but the horrible legacy of a Nazi past, which, to her shock, permeates the world of opera and classical music in 1960's Austria.
Williams has created a richly detailed world -- from the Hawaiian paradise of Maile's birth, to the old-culture Salzburg paradise of her artistic growth into a fully accomplished soprano. Each world is contrasted; each has its own unique delights, and Maile frequently feels the tug of each. The descriptions of Hawaiian sunsets over mythical beaches rival those of the Austrian city's picturesque architecture and snow-capped mountains. Williams makes sure the reader fully experiences her settings, even noting small details. In this particular case, she fuses the beauty of Hawaii with that of the Austrian countryside: "The plane glided lower toward a long green river winding past three tree-covered hills, the tallest spiked by a castle, its steep walls topped by the spear points of towers, at its base a maze of twisting streets as dense as a coral reef." It's sentences like this one, as well as the ones quoted above, that make this novel such a pleasantly lush read, for those who enjoy poetic prose. (I wonder if there's an audiobook edition; these lovely sentences must be even lovelier when read aloud.)
The novel is full of musical and operatic references, which is part of what makes it so enchanting. Although I don't know much about opera, I do love classical music, having grown up listening to piano and violin concertos, symphonies, chamber music, and such choral works as Handel's Messiah. Thus, I greatly enjoyed seeing many great composers mentioned, as well as learning musical terms that I had never heard before. Because of this book, I think I'm going to begin cultivating an appreciation for opera!
Maile Manoa is someone I wish I could be friends with. She is a very gutsy, determined woman, totally focused on her goal, willing to undertake nearly any sacrifice to achieve it. She is also sweet and very naïve at the beginning of her story. She never becomes jaded, either, even as she sees the corruption around her, the hypocrisy, the ethnic snobbery. She somehow rises above it all, buoyed by her love for Karl.
Karl is a bit unsure of himself as he starts his relationship with Maile. That makes me like him immensely, since I think that men who love their own importance are unattractive, even if physically gorgeous. In spite of his initial insecurity, Karl soon falls into an easy camaraderie with the Hawaiian soprano, one that becomes deeper, richer. He and Maile give each other emotional support through the trials of perfecting their respective crafts. As events in the latter third of the novel approach the climax, Karl never wavers in his love and support for Maile, and she trusts him to be there for her during her moment of truth. This was indeed a beautiful relationship, and I wanted very badly for them to remain together!
This novel is just as much about following one's conscience as it is about working to achieve an artistic goal. Williams, who is herself Hawaiian, has deftly used her own background as an opera singer to craft a mesmerizing tale, with great characterizations that probe the depths of human nature. She is now one of my favorite writers! All I need is one novel, or one short story -- whatever the case may be -- to know if a particular author will be for me or not. It's happened with other writers, those whose particular brand of literary magic has woven a spell over my soul.
Aloha Mozart deserves to be praised, to become a bestseller, and I firmly believe it would translate into a totally engrossing film, as well. It is a beautiful literary pearl, one of those rare finds that will be treasured and re-read many times over. It's not only for opera or classical music connoisseurs, but for anyone who can understand what a true artist must undergo in order to attain the heights of their art, while holding on to their integrity.
I would like to thank Novel Publicity Book Tours
for including me in this tour, as well as
for providing a review copy of this book
in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author
Waimea Williams Online
A Musical Eye: Mozart In Hawaii?
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