The Silver Swan
Elena Delbanco
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The Silver Swan
Elena Delbanco
Other Press
240 pages
May 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The word passion is not heard as often as it used to be. When it is used, it’s likely referring to a person’s interests or avocations, not to a grand love affair. In recent times, this reader has learned more of two huge passions: Lucien Freud’s grand passion for painting, especially the human form; and Stephen Hawking’s passion for cosmology and finding answers to seemingly unsolvable questions. These passions are almost physical; they are like hunger. People with these gifts seldom have time for much else; family often suffers or determines to be endlessly tolerant and supportive.

This first novel is about a passion for an avocation and a vocation: in this case, for a cello, The Silver Swan, one of only a handful of remaining cellos made in the 1700s by Antonio Stradivarius, and for the classical music it so wonderfully produces. These instruments produce an unmatched sound. Although there are human loves in the novel, the primary love is of one man, Alexander Feldmann, and later his daughter, Mariana, and his former prize student, Claude, for the beautiful instrument. The time is the present, the settings international, including New York City and the Berkshires.

Alexander, an ailing, curmudgeonly old man, has loved the cello more than he has loved all else. His family’s lives have always revolved around him, his international performance schedule, and safeguarding and admiring the elegant instrument. As he is near the end of his life, he and Mariana begin to share a fairly “normal” close relationship. Muses Mariana,

…this life she now shared with Alexander was all her mother ever wanted. More and more despondent, her mother had waited for him to grow tired of traveling and concertizing, to come home, to take up a life with her…
When Alexander can no longer travel and perform and can hardly play the instrument, what will become of his cello? His daughter, who once faced a promising musical career, has lost the commitment to play professionally. Should he will it to his daughter (who expects it) or to his most promising student, Claude? Or might some institution desire it for its permanent collection of musical instruments?

The Silver Swan is loosely based on a true story. The author’s father, Bernard Greenhouse, was a member of the Beaux Arts Trio. The family auctioned off his 1707 cello, an ex-Paganini Stradivarius, after his death. The remembrance of this stirring and critical event became the basis of her novel.

This is an engaging, unusual book. The musical details are fascinating, well-researched and known. The love relationships between people, however, are a bit less believable or gratifying--but that is, perhaps, as it ought to be, as the rightful center of the novel is this instrument, an extension of its player. The language of the novel is at its best when describing music. Surprising, huge, personal discoveries are made, but they matter less as the saga of the cello’s future continues. This is a fairly quick read, a book the reader, especially if musically inclined or motivated, will not want to put down for long.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Deborah Straw, 2015

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