Book review: 'The Metropolis Case' by Matthew Gallaway

By Eugenia Zukerman
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 6:04 PM

"Nothing meaningful is ever unveiled without great risk - isn't that what you learned singing your opera?"

A botanist named Guillaume Marchand poses this question to his son, tenor Lucien Marchand. It's 1870, in Paris. Not only has Lucien sung the lead role in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," but he also owns an original score, given to him by composer Pauline Viardot. That score plays a major role in a marvelously complex story.

Author Matthew Gallaway has taken a great risk with his first novel by creating an intricate, multilayered tale that slides from past to present, from Europe to New York, from opera to pop. But despite the complexity, "The Metropolis Case" engages the reader emotionally on every page.

A quartet of characters is at the center of the story: Lucien, the promising and conflicted singer; Anna, an impressive soprano from Pittsburgh who gives up a thriving international opera career in the mid-1960s to teach; Maria, a prickly young soprano who studies with Anna at Juilliard in the 1980s and is more than a student to her; and Martin, a disenchanted lawyer who has weathered Sept. 11 in New York and is ready to change his life.

But to describe the plot is to miss the point. Wagner's music, with its longing for love and transcendence, is what gives this story ballast and provides a guiding motive.

These four people's lives begin to intersect in strange and intriguing ways. While exploring the tragedies and duplicities that have shaped them, each one is severely tested, and each will surprise the reader. This is a story of operatic proportions, filled with coincidences, but it never seems overwrought or contrived.

The author's language is down-to-earth but never earthbound, and Gallaway's characters are passionate and funny. Maria, dubbed Morticia in second grade, tells a friend, "Here I am lying in bed with a shattered heart, and the truth is I'm freaking out because I haven't practiced in two days. That's not exactly normal, is it?" Martin, who gives up his law practice, proclaims, "Quitting is seriously underrated," and there's the conductor who wears "the expression of one savoring the first bite of a spectacular creme brulee."

Gallaway, like some of his characters, is from Pittsburgh, studied law and, although he played in a rock band, grew to love opera. Writing this superb novel, the author must have felt like Lucien after his first performance of "Tristan in Munich" in 1865, when "for the first time he understood the consummating power of performance and how - as with romantic love - he had grasped this only after years of searching, of craving something he could not have described until after it was found."

bookworld@washpost.com

Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, an arts administrator and the founder of ClassicalGenie.com.

THE METROPOLIS CASE

by Matthew Gallaway

Crown. 372 pp. $25


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