The Wonder Singer
Mercè Casals is an international opera star and the subject of The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa, but she is dead before we have the chance to meet her. Instead the reader follows the efforts of Mark Lockwood, ghostwriter for Señora Casals, as he tries to piece together hundreds of hours of interviews for the Señora’s autobiography. It’s not as easy as that, however, as Lockwood’s agent is desperate for the interview tapes so he can hire a more well-known — yet less knowledgeable — author to take over the life story of La Casals. His only help in trying to keep the new writer from running everything is limited to the Señora’s former nurse [and object of Lockwood’s affection] and her biggest fan – a six-foot-four female impersonator who shows up to Señora Casals’ funeral in an exact replica of a costume from a show performed thirty-six years earlier. Dedicated to telling the story as Mercè Casals would have wanted it told, the three barricade themselves in Lockwood’s house as he works on his book, immersing themselves in the audio from the Señora’s life – recordings of both her performances and her interviews loop endlessly for them as Lockwood weaves the tale of the diva.
There’s a clever aspect to this book – chapters of the story Lockwood is writing are interspersed with his adventures in trying to get them written, and so the reader has the opportunity to ‘meet’ Señora Casals and understand Lockwood’s motivation for making sure her story is told properly. George Rabasa does such a wonderful job of bringing Señora Casals to life – I regret that she is a fictional character, for I would have loved to hear her sing, or to lear more about her. One chapter from the ‘autobiography’ stuck with me, as it detailed a dark period in the Señora’s life. She was infatuated with the prince of a small, defunct European country, and to please him she changed everything about herself for him: her hair, her makeup, her wardrobe, her body. She sang only what and when he wanted her to, and she became a shell of her former self. After five years of starving herself and canceling her recitals and rarely singing in public, she snaps and leaves the prince, and returns to her former glory when she is out from under his thumb. And from that point on, she lives her life as she wishes to live it, not according to anyone else’s standards.
I have to say, this is such a great book. Lockwood’s character is a little irritating, but I think he was supposed to be, for by the end of the novel he’s being transformed by his efforts in telling the Señora’s story. The Señora herself is such a strong woman, full of strength and joy, even after her death, even as someone else is telling her story.