The Spanish BowThe Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the treasures that await at Seattle’s “The Spanish Table” market, tucked underneath the Pike St. Hillclimb. Reflecting off the gleam of steel paella pans and bottles of port and Albarino, lining the way to the cheese and sausage cold case, are several rows of books: cookbooks from Spain and Portugal, travel books to illuminate the Santiago de Compostela, and works of fiction about Iberia or by authors who are connected to that peninsula so ripe with history and romance.

Enter “he Spanish Bow by the gorgeously-named Andromeda Romano-Lax. The eponymous bow is one of the few belongings a villager leaves to his children and wife – sent by post after his death in distant Cuba in 1898. Young Feliu Delargo is six at the time of his father’s death. He selects the bow from his father’s meager trove without understanding its use. Even after he begins violin lessons, he feels little more than rote interest in developing his musical aptitude.

Then a cellist visits his village, part of a trio featuring a famous pianist, Justo Al-Cerraz. From the first notes of the cello, Feliu is enchanted. His fate is sealed. What follows is a history of 20th century Spain, as lived through a struggling, then famous, musician. As a child, Feliu travels to Barcelona where he studies with a depressed but brilliant musician. He then comes of age in the fading glory of the Spanish court, befriending the Queen and learning to play duets by making love with an eccentric pianist, the daughter of his tutor.

As a young man Feliu again encounters the piano prodigy, Al-Cerraz. The two form a musical partnership that lasts decades. Music may be the central theme to the novel, but the partnership between Feliu and Al-Cerraz is the novel’s motif. The love-tolerance-mistrust-dependence that binds them mirrors how they feel about music, about Spain, and about Aviva, the beautiful Italian violinist who breaks their hearts. They cannot live apart from, yet are tormented by their love for each of these and for one another.

The novel has two distinct parts and feels. Feliu’s early years read like a fable, naively, almost as if the book were a translation. Once Feliu reaches adulthood and Europe plunges into World War I, the pace picks up and the tone matures and becomes more modern. It is somewhat disconcerting. Feliu as a character diminishes as the situation in Spain becomes more desperate. Other characters, most notably Al-Cerraz and Aviva, but also historical figures such as Picasso, Elgar, Weill and Goebbels are richly colored and have more immediacy.

Romano-Lax incorporates an astonishing degree of historical detail into The Spanish Bow. Feliu’s life is loosely based on that of the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. The author clearly wanted to present a modern history of Spain in its entirety, using art and the pursuit of artistic independence and purity as a mirror to reflect Spain’s troubled quest for democracy. It’s impressive and engrossing, but the narrative does lose focus in this dogged commitment to history. Years are jumped over, Feliu’s rise to fame is foggy, Aviva- a Jew who lives in Berlin when she is not touring with Feliu and Al-Cerraz- has a storyline that begs better resolution. Too much time is given to Feliu’s touring and the daily drudgery of his life off the road- sections that could have been deleted in favor of a brisker plot and narrative momentum.

The Spanish Bow is a wonderful début by a devoted student of history, lover of music, and talented storyteller. Historical fiction lives and breathes with intelligence and passion under Ms. Romano-Lax’s pen. I see she has a new work debuting early 2012. It’s set in Italy, on the eve of World War II –  art, intrigue and the Third Reich. I can’t wait!

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