Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice, by Pat Lowery Collins (Candlewick, 2009, 352pp, YA).
This book arose from a snippet Collins chanced to hear on her local classical music station--that Vivaldi wrote countless concertos to be played by orphaned girls of Venice, giving the lucky ones a pathway to careers in music, or to rich husbands. From this fact, Collins built a fictional story of three of these orphans, brought up the Ospedale della Pieta, a home for abandoned female orphans. Not only were the girls well carred for, but any who showed any glimmer of musical aptitude had instruments put into their hands from the moment they could hold them.
Three first-person stories are told in this book--the stories of Rosalba, Anetta, and Luisa, age-mates at the brink of adulthood. Despite the sheltered privilege of their lives, and the genuine pleasure that music gives them, each one yearns for more than the orphanage can give. One, a beautiful oboist, craves Romance, pining over a handsome young man glimpsed from the orphanage window. One, gifted with an extraordinarily lovely voice, longs for the mother who abandoned her long ago. The mother, now a nobleman's courtesan, tempts her with dreams of a shared life, if she can become a famous opera singer. The third, a dedicated viola player, longs with sad persistance for the second girl to return the deep love she offers.
Reality breaks in, and the dreams of the three girls shatter, one suddenly and horribly, two more slowly. And all the while, Vivaldi--kind, distracted, asthmatic--writes beautiful music for them to play, for the privileged folk of Venice to hear.
Collins does a pretty good job, I think, making her girls real people set within the context of their own time (except I wonder, a bit, that religion is so little at the forefront of their minds, brought up, as they were, within a religious institution), and she does an excellent job making each girl a distinct personality (she does a nice job with Vivaldi too!). My only real quarrel with the book is one of style (but since I was reading the ARC, I don't know quite how the final version will read). For the most part, Collins eschews contractions, and so the prose felt a tad heavy and slow at times, especially for first-person narration. Contractions that do suddenly appear are a tad jarring by contrast. Once I had accepted this, however, I had no trouble becoming interested in three intertwined stories.
This is a book I would heartily recommend for the following categories of reader:
--those who love Vivaldi in particular, or baroque music, who will appreciate the knowledge Collins brings to bear on the subject
--anyone interested in the history of women in music
--those who were or are dedicated young musicians, like the girls in the book
--those who love stories of girls in confined settings (such as boarding schools and convents)
--those who love historical fiction where the characters are central, and history is writ small (no kings or queens or epic wars etc.)
--and finally, those who love Venice. Even though seen, for the most part, through the windows of the orphanage, Venice is at the heart of the story.
At Journey of a Bookseller there's another review of Hidden Voices, and an ARC being given away (I guess it's still open, cause it doesn't say it isn't). I won't be offering mine here, because I already have a friend who meets three of the above criteria in mind for it.
As an added bonus, I am infinitely more interested in Vivaldi's music than I was last month, now that I know so much more of the circumstances in which it was born. Anyone looking for a very fine present to give could combine this book very nicely with a Vivaldi cd--I myself wish I had something besides The Four Seasons on hand, and in my mind, for that matter!
Hidden Voices will be released May 12, 2009.