“The Silver Swan,” Elena Delbanco’s first novel, is an enthralling tale about music and the passions it inspires. At the opening, a gifted cellist named Mariana Feldmann is called to a lawyer’s office. She assumes she’s about to officially inherit her famous father’s priceless Stradivarius, named the Silver Swan, which he’d promised would be hers after his death. Instead, she is handed a letter that reveals a secret that will change everything.
As the story folds back into Mariana’s past, we learn that she worshiped her father, who was also her most demanding teacher — a connection that shaped who she became and what she needed to overcome. As his pupil and only child, she practiced with fervor and purpose: to please Daddy, to get his attention, to make him proud. By the age of 19, she was playing concerts all over the globe, but then in her late 20s she collapsed onstage during a performance. Gossips said the fall was caused by grief. Her lover, a Russian conductor, had left her. Whatever the truth, “she had never again sought a relationship,” Delbanco writes. Her father “had schooled her in the feckless nature of men, and she had believed him. Men were adversaries whom she was challenged to beat at their own game.”
Writing fiction about the world of classical musicians risks hitting wrong notes and making toes curl, but Delbanco’s story is perfectly in tune. Clearly, the author is ardent about music and those who play it. Her fast-paced plot is handled with virtuosic flair, and the characters are intriguing onstage, backstage and offstage. Told with respect, humor and affection, “The Silver Swan” offers insights into those who maintain and sell precious stringed instruments and those who live to play and own one.
Delbanco’s father was the esteemed cellist Bernard Greenhouse, who owned a Stradivarius. Perhaps it’s Delbanco’s knowledge of music and musicians, plus her understanding of the complexities of their lives, that make this tale so touching and memorable. She shows empathy for the demands and expectations placed on those who perform at the highest level, while also acknowledging the havoc caused by their often elevated egos and sometimes unspeakable flaws.
In one painful, telling scene, Mariana recalls attending a film about her father that failed to mention her or her mother. Afterward, riding home with him, Mariana hopes for some loving words of approbation. Instead, her father tells her: “All my life I’ve wanted only one thing for you. . . . That before I died you would see me honored the way I was tonight, and you would know how greatly I have been esteemed.”
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, writer and Internet video blogger and the new music director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, N.Y.
On June 6 at 3:30 p.m., Delbanco will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Elena Delbanco
Other. 232 pp. Paperback, $16.95