This was the second of three historical fiction novels I borrowed from the library six weeks ago – I know it was six weeks ago, because this and Water For Elephants are both due on Monday, and if I don’t spend all Saturday reading that and Strangers on a Train, I’m going to incur some awesome overdue fees – and yes, this is the second one by Megan Chance. Yes, both of them were in the same bunch of books I borrowed originally. No, I can’t tell you why; and isn’t that the fun of going to the library? You end up picking up books by authors you’ve never heard of, because for one reason or another, your curiosity is piqued. For me, picking up Susannah Morrow was two-fold: the cover grabbed me first, and I’ll admit, when I read the summary on the inside cover, I almost put it down, because I did not want a retread of The Crucible. But I wandered through the fiction shelves once more, and ended up picking the book up again, so I said to myself, “Must be a sign,” and checked it out.
Prima Donna was actually a couple of titles separate from the rest of Megan Chance’s novels — and is there nothing more annoying to a bibliophile than seeing books out of alphabetical order? — and it took me actually picking up the back of the book to read the summary before realizing it was written by the same author. This book had three things that intrigued me: a saloon-slash-whorehouse in the Ol’ West; an opera singer; and murder.
Prima Donna tells us the story of Marguerite Olson, who has run to Seattle after a horrible ordeal in New York. We then learn that Marguerite is the assumed name of Sabine Conrad, one of the most feted opera singers in America, and she has disappeared under a haze of scandal. It’s possible a murder was involved. The story progresses from two viewpoints: we see the current viewpoint of Marguerite in Seattle, hiding in a rough brothel as a partner to the owner (who I could only imagine as Al Swearengen, but without the Shakesperean-esque monologues or anywhere near the penchant for swearing), and then in another chapter we’ll switch back to reading from the journal of Sabine Conrad, where we see her progress from a middle-class singer in the German part of New York to the prima donna she ends up as.
Sabine’s manager, Gideon, is a mysterious character: on the one hand, we believe that he loves Sabine (it is always clear that Sabine loves Gideon), but Gideon’s ambition — which either fuels or is fueled by Sabine’s own ambition — is to make Sabine the biggest opera star in the world, and he will do anything — and ask Sabine to do (almost) anything — to achieve his goal. For instance, when she starts to gain some notoriety in the upper echelons of society (and catches the eye of some rich benefactors), he tells Sabine to “keep the men happy.” Sabine interprets that she is to become their mistress in exchange for concert contracts and new theatres.
Eventually, Sabine wises up to Gideon’s manipulations, and in her attempt to escape him, she cozies up to a French promoter named Alain. (Which is really hard to type for me — I keep wanting to add that last ‘a.’) Then, the tragedy.
When she arrives in Seattle, she cozies up to Johnny, the owner of the Palace, which is a saloon slash brothel, but he has high hopes of becoming a legitimate theatre. Now Marguerite, she helps Johnny (through much resistance) turn the Palace legitimate. She makes a friend, Charlotte, and she begins to tell Charlotte pieces of her past – told obliquely through plot points of operas she and Gideon acted in – and eventually, returns to singing in the choir.
But then her past catches up with her, and she has a decision to make: does she stay in Seattle with the life she’s created with Johnny, or does she return east to her career?
As I wrote this review, I debated whether or not to reveal who Sabine killed, and what choice she had to make. I decided to not be a complete spoiler, because I’m trying to be a better person, and while I think I can talk about why I wasn’t totally satisfied with this book, I think I can do it without spoiling it for —
Oh for fuck’s sake. Screw it. I didn’t like the book because I felt it ended poorly. Sabine kills Alain in New York, but the first half of the book leads you believe that she may have killed Gideon. The reader sees Gideon’s subtle manipulations through Sabine’s journal chapters, and we can completely understand how she may have killed him, even while she loved him. Two words, people: Stockholm. Syndrome.
But when Gideon shows up in Seattle, we figure out that she couldn’t have killed Gideon, if for no other reason than that would have added an awesome supernatural element to the novel, but it would have been even weirder if three-quarters of the way through the book, Marguerite would have been literally haunted by the ghost of her ex-lover.
So the choice Sabine has to make: does she stay in Seattle with Johnny, completely leaving her previous career behind, or does she return to the opera with Gideon as her manager?
To me, the answer is SEATTLE. Sabine as Marguerite has carved a niche out for herself, and she has shown growth – sure, she shacked up with Johnny originally out of necessity, but even she can’t deny she’s grown fond of him. She’s even made a friend in Charlotte. Going back to New York would just turn her into Sabine again – a spoiled, beautiful woman with an amazing talent, true; but manipulations or no, she allowed herself to be manipulated by Gideon and also played some games of her own.
But the author explains it away that the pull of the stage and the music is too much to bear, and also, that Gideon never told Sabine to sleep with those men; just to keep them interested. That he was jealous of the fact that she was sleeping with people to get them money, and that he only flirted with the other girls in the opera company because he was in love with Sabine. That being in prison changed him (he was jailed for Sabine’s crime), and that her return after the scandal would let them keep the games off the table.
So in the end, Sabine realizes that part of the manipulations were that she was a crazy, selfish, and spoiled little girl thrown into a crazy situation, and her ambition and desires made her do things that she absolutely didn’t want to do, but did them anyway, and she placed the blame on Gideon because he had equal amounts of ambition.
All in all, I feel that the better choice for Sabine was to stay in Seattle and not return to New York. But then again, I can always recognize what a horrible, co-dependent relationship looks like, and I have always valued independence over the alternative. So when she chooses to return to New York and her old life (bringing Charlotte along, as her ex-whore version of Jiminy Cricket), I was very disappointed.
And that’s why I rated it 2 stars. Because the lead-up to the end was very good, and richly detailed; but Sabine’s choice didn’t show any growth or depth of character, and for that, the book suffered overall.
Grade for Prima Donna: 2 stars