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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Rabasa, George: The Wonder Singer

  Amazon  

3.5 stars

Forty-year-old Mark Lockwood has been commissioned to ghostwrite the autobiography of Senora Mercè Casals, diva. For six hours a day he and the Senora, once the world's greatest soprano, talk--she reliving her roles as Norma and Aida and Violetta. She relives the rest of her life as well, singing on her father's cue in bars and hostels, the stranger her father handed her off to, the Spanish Civil War, the men in her life who claimed her and used her and loved her. But after 500 hours of conversation recorded on the precarious snakes of tape spooled in a suitcase's worth of cassettes, Lockwood's diva up and dies, her 80-something body floating "pale, blubberous and opalescent in her bath." The fate of Lockwood's book, given her death, is now up in the air. Lockwood was the right man for the job while the Senora was alive, but with her death his agent wants a bigger name, a bestselling author, someone who can churn out a doorstep-sized biography that will grace the supermarket aisles. He's ready to ditch Lockwood with a fat kill fee. But Lockwood has the tapes, without which the book project--like the diva herself--is pretty much dead in the water. Now obsessed with the diva and with his book, Lockwood grabs the tapes and runs.

In The Wonder Singer Rabasa tells the intertwined stories of Lockwood and Senora Casals, his narrative slipping back and forth from what's going on in the narrative present to Lockwood's interviews with the dival to chapters taken from the manuscript he's writing. He's working feverishly, writing 8-12 hours a day and listening to the tapes even while he sleeps, ignoring phone calls and running from his agent's goons, destroying his marriage. But mostly Rabasa's story is about the diva, her life told in her voice in great detail so that she comes alive, a believable character.

In parts Rabasa's book shines, but it goes on overlong and can drag. Some parts of the plot are hard to believe--the extent of Lockwood's obsession, for one; Casals' husband announcing his latest conquest by holding aloft her purple underwear in a crowded Mexican dance hall. More hard to believe is the dialogue, which is too perfect to be credible. Toward the end of the book Lockwood's wife draws attention to this very problem:

"It's weird the way you start talking like a writer."

"As opposed to talking like a plumber?"

"You know what I mean. Like you don't really care whether anyone is listening or thinking that you're making sense, as long as the words resonate in your own head."

She's respondong to a speech of his which reads in part:

"You could look at the bottom of the pot and analyze the sediment of those ten thousand brewings and see our life divided into chapters. The Earl Gray phase and the era of the cheap Indian gunpowder and the year of green tea and the days of English Breakfast. Remember those green-tea times? We got up at five A.M. for Zen during seven months. I had a beard and you had a Buddhist-nun haircut. We were so earnest. We went for the whole thing--the wok, the brown rice, macrobiotics, less yin more yang."

Granted that in times of heightened emotion, as this scene arguably is, one's diction can be elevated, but the same complaint could be raised about most of the dialogue in the book: it's self-conscious, as if everyone is performing and has script writers feeding them lines.

Still, The Wonder Singer is worth the read for the character of the diva. And the book is more interesting told as it is, the Senora's story woven throughout Lockwood's, than it would have been had Rabasa elected instead to write a straightforward account of her life.

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