Sharratt's book is a fascinating look at fin de siècle beauty Alma Maria Mahler (1879-1964), the Viennese-born composer and socialite. At fifteen, she was mentored by Max Burckhard, who encouraged her to compose. Alma falls in love with Alexander von Zemlinsky before becoming the wife of composer Gustav Mahler, who did not approve of her continuing to compose music. Sharratt covers the seeds of Alma's artistry from her stifling depression to her tempestuous marriage to Mahler. Filled with a bottomless ambition that almost leaves her breathless, Alma yearns to compose something that no other woman has ever done. When her dear sister Gretl becomes engaged to tedious Wilhelm Ledger, a painter of numbing mediocrity, Alma comes under pressure from her mother, Anna von Bergen, and her stepfather, Carl Moll, to marry and become the mistress of her own household.
Turn-of-the-century Vienna has become a fountain of modern art, music and writing. At only nineteen, beautiful Alma is attracted to powerful, handsome Gustav Klimt. The most celebrated painter in all Vienna, Klimt is a truly modern man who understands Alma's desire to continue composing in this new age where the rules of art and music and society are changing. An artist's daughter, Alma observes how everything flickers and glows toward her awakening passion. Her face flushed with yearning, Alma recognizes in Klimt and herself "two souls, a complete physical union."
Highly sought-after Alma loves to flirt and play consort to Vienna's famous, the young artists and intellectuals who frequent her stepfather's salon. With self-confidence and assuredness, Alma mines a cerebral power that she harnesses for her own sensual pleasure. Though Alma is loved by Klimt "like champagne bubbles bursting on her tongue," Anna von Bergen sees him as nothing more than a womanizer and a syphilitic with "three love affairs running at the same time." To Alma, Klimt is the epitome of the bohemian freethinker, a young lothario who will hopefully lead Alma to the threshold of "a forbidden paradise."
Alma is a kaleidoscope of human emotions: sensitive, charming and impulsive. In the spring of 1901, she courts her composition tutor, Alexander von Zemlinsky, their affair unfolding in secret during private lessons and matinee concerts. Alma works diligently for Alex in spite of urges from parents and friends to do what suits women of her station best: concentrate more on society and less on music. Despite her nascent feminist aspirations, Alma's calm, collected machinations nail her the ultimate prize: esteemed conductor Gustav Mahler. At the Vienna Court Opera's premiere of Tristan und Isolde, Alma sits in absolute awe of this tortured genius who oozes maniacal vigor and energy. With his whip-thin athletic appearance and his wild, unruly hair, Mahler radiates an intense luminous aura.
Does Alma truly love Gustav, or is she simply seduced by the force of his personality? If she binds herself to him for the rest of her life, will she unreservedly believe in him? When Mahler is forced to renounce his Jewish origins in order to obtain a position he craves, Alma seethes with her own inner demons. At first, she has no problem questioning her husband's authority, but then she starts pushing her own desires. She acts bored when Mahler becomes a recluse and shuts himself away at their summerhouse at Maiernigg. Alma and her two infant daughters are mostly left to her own devices.
Unable to find fulfillment at home, the Alma's inner war rages as she vacillates between "her false self and her capricious self." Is she just "an idiot" who rushed into marriage because she was pregnant? Grieving and frustrated, she plunges into an affair with handsome young architect Walter Gropius, telling him that her husband never acknowledged what the surrender of her existence cost her. Too utterly engrossed in his work, self-denials, and operatic and symphonic struggles, Mahler fails to see that Alma's sex had become her power, a "terrifying ecstasy" that courses through her.
Great creative souls are, by their nature, usually filled with ambition and arrogance and dedication to art (and to themselves). Alma has these attributes, yet she is tormented and stifled by the societal strictures of the time and her husband, whom she desperately loves but ultimately throws her into despair. Eloquent one minute and fiercely passionate the next, Sharratt unfurls a powerful, sensual saga that explores the high cost of artistry. Mahler should have recognized Alma's creative needs so that she might have had a place to channel her passionate stirrings.