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Accompanied by strings

Overture A Novel Yael Goldstein Doubleday: 294 pp., $24.95

January 14, 2007|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Readers will frequently want to take this misguided woman by the shoulders and cry, "What are you doing?" But we never lose sympathy for Natasha, because we see how vulnerable and insecure she is. As she retreats from Jean Paul and composing, throwing herself once more into playing the violin, we also see that she was born to be a performer. She's a superb interpreter, finding the emotional essence of works that no one else has discerned -- and she knows it. Her marvelous descriptions of performing, filled with metaphors of battle and struggle, make it clear how invested she is: "These notes are mine as well, I'd insist from inside the score; I own them too, and I am creating." Why can't it ever be enough?

Actually, it is enough in the book's lovely and moving final pages. But Natasha has a long road to travel before she gets there, and the stops she makes along the way include an ill-advised tryst with yet another older man that results in Alex's birth, as well as the painful discovery in Alex's teenage years of what it must have been like for Jean Paul to live with a resentful companion who loves you but finds you overwhelming. Alex goes to Indiana to make her own life and becomes an acolyte of Jean Paul, now an embittered, slightly crazy cult figure. "I don't think there's anyplace I can go where your long arm hasn't already reached," she rages when she discovers that her mother was the love of her musical idol's life. "You're not human; you're, you're omnipresent."

The slow unfolding of Natasha's story acknowledges damage that cannot be undone. She failed to nourish her abilities as a composer, and they withered. Her betrayal derailed Jean Paul's career -- though not his music -- for years. A tender reconciliation scene suggests they may yet have a future, but they are not the same people who loved each other a quarter of a century ago. In her most important relationship, however, Natasha finally gets it right. Alex is the brilliant composer her mother never had the conviction to be, and when Natasha tells her "all I ever wanted was to have the talent you have," she liberates her daughter from the intimidating shadow she didn't even know she had cast.

It might seem odd for Goldstein to dedicate a tale of mother-daughter strife to her own mother, critically esteemed novelist Rebecca Goldstein, but it turns out to be entirely appropriate. Both Goldsteins write fiction deeply involved with intellect and ideas, warmed by sensitively delineated emotions and propelled by strong storytelling. "Overture" establishes Yael Goldstein as a writer with a distinctive voice of her own, while paying graceful tribute to the family literary tradition. *

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