In this gorgeously written tale, author George Rabasa gradually unfurls the poignant bedside confessions of an aging opera star to her ghostwriter, Mark Lockwood. Mark, in his “rumpled khakis and pocket t-shirt,” decides that he will pursue the biography of grand dame Merce Casals even after the eighty-year-old suddenly expires in her favorite bathroom. With her tomato-red hair cascading around her, all the time sitting smug and queenly, she stares at Mark with a mixture of suspicion and amusement, fanatically dictates to Lockwood her story while aiming to “flush the rats from her past.”
Gradually it is revealed that Merce has indeed led a colorful life plagued by near misses and blown opportunities, with great fame and fortune paralleling her apparent tragedies. An artist but also an insufferable egoist, for Merce singing was almost a spiritual act. But as
her words flutter around Mark like the musical notes she so obviously loves, he begins to listen to her voice from deep inside him as though she died before her time and left it up to Mark to deal with her unresolved business, especially that of her “fierce and petty grudges.”
Mark’s precious tapes and Merce’s priceless memorabilia hold the ultimate keys to this diva’s fractured life, along with all of her carefully hidden secrets and all of her memories that seem to have kept her tethered to earth forever. Growing up in Spain, Merce was abandoned by her father then adopted by a shady impresario in a humble inn in an out-of-the-way village where there was very little opportunity for artistic achievement.
Thrust into the chaotic violence of Barcelona and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Merce witnesses terrible acts of atrocity forcing her into the realization that she
is not about to let a war ruin her life. Her great love - her husband, Nolan Keefe
- becomes her savior with letters full of vague hopes and the reckless promise to send her steamer passage so that she can join him in New York.
As Merce’s story rapidly unfolds, Mark has his own demons to contend with. Undergoing a midlife crisis, he seems to have reached a point in his life where he questions everything, especially his career as
a writer and his failing marriage to Claire, who is far too concerned that he has actually fallen in love with his hypnotic muse. Even worse, he’s in danger of being exploited and sidelined by his own agent who has begun to push him off the project, even smuggling in a famous writer under an alias, both agent and writer stopping at nothing to get their hands on Merce’s prized tape recordings.
At the dead singer’s apartment, Mark finds hope and the possibilities of salvation, falling into the arms of Perla, Merce’s beautiful maid, who after eighteen months of service to the Senora has finally had her charge lifted off her hands. Mark’s attraction to Perla is instant, her charming ways providing a stark antithesis to his current life with the difficult Claire, her thoughts and observations on Merce granting Mark the panacea for his completed biography.
Rabasa writes beautifully of his characters' sorrows and heartaches as both Lockwood, Merce
- and later Nolan - confess their deepest and darkest insecurities along with
their greatest dreams. In this story about the price one pays for artistic freedom, Merce might at first appear
to be a victim when she’s not playing the role of the guileful seducer in an existence punctuated by men as heroes and villains, where she was often abandoned then, ironically, owned by them.
Rabasa’s liquid yet always tightly structured prose imbues this novel with the language of loss and an otherworldly atmosphere as the narrative traverses
from the modern cities of Southern California to the Spanish countryside, then
onto Barcelona and the other great cities of the world. Merce ultimately becomes a talented diva, singing her heart out to princes and kings and famous heads of state.
As Merce’s voice inevitably declines and she becomes increasingly manipulated by those around her, she faces her ultimate test yet: that of being a fading opera star who must tackle her demons with grace, pain, and equanimity. As heartache gives way to emptiness, Lockwood too comes across as an earnestly melancholic misfit, a type of literary desperado who mirrors Merce’s own giant ego even as he tries desperately to stay in tune with the transcendent love of his wife.