Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Musician's Daughter

by Suzanne Dunlap
Reviewed by Melissa

It's late-18th-century Vienna, and Theresa Maria is the daughter of one of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy's court musicians. Her godfather is the estimable Joseph Haydn, and she thinks life is just about perfect. That is, until her father is found outside a Gypsy camp brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Faced with a mother who's extremely pregnant and the looming responsibility of providing for the household, Theresa is not willing to be a "good" girl and let her father's murder go unsolved. She turns to Haydn for support and financial help, and, in the process, discovers her father had been leading a secret life. She embarks upon a path through many dangers in order to uncover the truth about her his death.

I have read one book by Dunlap before, and what struck me most was the combination of musicality and history. I was hoping for -- probably expecting -- more of the same when I started this book. I was mildly disappointed that there were not more passages describing the music, or what it felt like for Theresa to play, or hear, the violin. Dunlap still included passages of musical transcendence, but I wasn't as captivated by them as I wanted to be. Perhaps it was because I'm not a violinist; different instrument, different language. But, I think I came away feeling as if the music in the book was secondary to the adventure, and that it really wasn't all-important what instrument Theresa played.

That aside, though, it was a fairly adventuresome book. A political thriller of sorts, Theresa not only investigates the murder of her father, but manages to dig deep into political corruption and the kidnapping and selling of young boys as menial workers in Hungary. She manages to get through some tight scrapes, making friends with a Romany clan on the way, and in the end, finds justice (or at least closure). I'm not sure how plausible it all is, but between the rich historical detail and the action, I could forgive it. There's even a hint at romance between Theresa and one of Hayden's court musicians. Dunlap brushes over or just hints at the harsher details of 18th-century life, which gives the book a slightly disjointed feel. I think she was trying to keep up the pace of the book -- which she did, considering it was a lot of running back and forth from Vienna to the countryside -- but I think I would have enjoyed it more if there were more detail and less running.

In all, though, it's a good combination of music and history and adventure. I did like Theresa as a character: she was willing to do what needed to be done, at any cost, even if it meant being a bit foolhardy. And it all ended okay, which is definitely a plus for this kind of book. It just didn't make me want to pick up the violin. Which is probably a good thing.

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