Review

The Wonder Singer

by George Rabasa

Mark Lockwood is a hack, a writer-for-hire whose bread and
butter so far has been a series of How to Talk To Your Teen
About...
books. So when he takes on ghostwriting the
autobiography of aging opera diva Mercè Casals, he finds
himself entranced by her free spirit and her stories. It
doesn’t hurt that “La Casals” employs an
attractive, no-nonsense day nurse named Perla, who tolerates his
flirting in between caring for her charge and sneaking out for
smoke breaks. He spends his days in the Señora’s
apartment, learning to appreciate opera and recording 500 hours of
interviews, somewhat at the expense of his marriage to Claire,
which was already suffering.

But one morning, Perla urgently calls him into Casals’s
bathroom. “In the dim light, in the steamy warm air, in the
scent of the orchids and the ferns and the snaking tendrils of ivy
and clematis and jasmine, Lockwood hears himself think: My diva
is dead.
” Soon his agent, Hollywood Hank, is hounding
Lockwood for the tapes. Now that Casals has died, he wants to
replace Lockwood with a different hack --- a famous one. And when
he spies Alonzo Baylor at the funeral, his worst suspicions are
confirmed: “Baylor makes literature look easy, as one terse
sentence inevitably builds on another. He has time to write books
and to pal around with film stars, prizefighters, beach
bunnies, and ex-convicts.”

Lockwood, somewhat to his own surprise, digs in his heels. He
jealously guards the tapes and plunges into finishing The
Wonder Singer
, a book that will not only beat Baylor to the
punch, but also do justice to the story of the eccentric diva that
has opened up his own life. George Rabasa’s novel is the
story of Lockwood’s struggle with this book, interspersed
with chapters of the actual book he is writing, in Casals’s
own (we presume edited) words. Beginning with an early abandonment
by her father, a tutelage of “the voice” under a father
figure, teenage adventures in the Barcelona of the Spanish Civil
War, her life unfolds with stories of the men and opera roles she
has known throughout a long and colorful career.

Case in point. She is married to tenor Nolan Keefe, but a
certain prince is wooing her. His amorous gift? Two peacocks let
loose on stage. Casals relates the tale in one of her chapters:
“The magnificent birds strutted in as I was rising from a
languid curtsy.” (Illustrating one problem of the
ghostwriter: can we imagine someone describing her own curtsy as
languid?) Back in the hotel room with her husband, the birds trash
the room when the couple begins to get “intimate.”

THE WONDER SINGER presents many colorful threads that are never
resolved. How does the completed book do in the wide world? Does it
beat out Baylor’s version? Do Claire and Lockwood reconcile?
How is Lockwood changed by persevering with The Wonder
Singer
? Certainly this book contains all the exotic images and
lurid stories that one might expect from a novel about an opera
diva. As it zigzagged back and forth between chapters of The
Wonder Singer
and details of Lockwood writing the
autobiography (pizza boxes piling up and overflowing ashtrays, odd
alliances, Claire leaving), I couldn’t help wishing for a
tidy bow in at least a couple of the loose ends. But perhaps the
unanswered questions lend staying power to the vivid scenes of this
book, like a few tantalizing secrets keep a great singer’s
reputation alive long after she leaves the stage.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 24, 2011

The Wonder Singer
by George Rabasa

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Unbridled Books
  • ISBN-10: 1932961690
  • ISBN-13: 9781932961690