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The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa
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The Wonder Singer

by George Rabasa

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The story revolves around Mark Lockwood, a writer who has grown to view writing as a means of paying the bills rather than an art. Well, rather - the story half revolves around him. More accurately, it revolves around the famous opera diva whom he has been visiting, gathering notes on, in order to ghostwrite her biography. Her death, however, pushes her into the spotlight once again, and Lockwood's agent attempts to take his notes to give to a more famous author, but Lockwood has become so intrigued by Merce Casals, that he absconds with the notes and locks himself in to finish her story himself.

The book alternates between Lockwood's current struggles and Merce Casals's reminiscences, which leads to the first problem, in that apparently the author felt the need to help readers differentiate by writing Lockwood's portions in present tense. I freely admit that I am a snob about such things, however; if you feel that this would not bother you, by all means, read on.

The problem is that Merce Casals is perfect. Rabasa creates a figure who should be arrogant (she listens to nothing but her own famous arias), but comes across as humble, precocious, poetic, and wistful. She is every bit as changeable and charming and larger-than-life as one would expect a famous diva to be. However, this is sort of the problem with the book - Lockwood, who dominates most of the plot, can never live up to her presence. The portions of Casals recollecting the Spanish Civil War, and later, her complicated love for one man she grows to despise as much as she loves, are far more interesting than the somewhat pathetic figure Lockwood cuts.

Interspersed with the dreamy, amused narrative of the diva, we have Lockwood's own cringe-worthy attempts at seducing a woman who is not his wife, disturbing ramblings when attempting to talk with his wife, and ignominious moments such as when a dog gets familiar with his leg at a bar. The ending never really shows that Lockwood has learned anything from Casals's life - instead, it takes another character to tell him what he should have garnered from so many intimate moments with his subject, recounting her beautiful life.

Finally, there are nominally three other important characters, but none seem to contribute anything meaningful and are gone almost as soon as they appear, with little fanfare as they leave.

All in all, it would have been more satisfying to have read a more in-depth fictional account of Casals's life and left poor Lockwood out of it entirely. ( )
  kittyjay | Apr 23, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"The Wonder Singer" is a very engaging and entertaining novel. The author uses the story-within-a-story technique to present a modern novel that has a very historical feel. The chapters winningly alternated between scenes from the opera singer's life and the ghost writer's frantic efforts to document her revelations while his own life unraveled. Additionally, the characters were memorable and for the most part well-characterized. ( )
  jjm2004 | Jun 26, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Mark Lockwood is a hack. He’s a writer without pretension, happy to make a living. But now he’s somehow landed the writing job of all time—ghostwriter of the autobiography of legendary opera diva Merce Casals. Suddenly he has a real investment in his work.

The story of Senora Casals life and career is a major thread throughout the novel. As she relays the triumphs and tragedies of her life, Mark develops a genuine affection for the sometimes difficult lady. And, bored in his marriage, he holds an affection of a different sort for her attractive nurse, Perla. All is going well with the project until La Casals up and dies on them.

Suddenly, her biography is a hot property. Lockwood’s manager wants to reassign the book to a more high profile biographer, and he wants Lockwood to surrender the recordings he and Casals made together. It is at this point that the novel veers off into what might be considered farcical territory, with an oversized drag queen added to the troupe of biographers on the run.

The story is interesting on multiple levels—first, simply for the grand operatic background. And George Rabasa has created a memorable tribe of characters that stick with the reader for some time. However, it was here that Rabasa and I ran into trouble. I continually got caught up in the action of The Wonder Singer, and time and time again it became obvious to me that the author was writing a novel about character, not plot. He hammered it home: character, not plot. And if you read the novel with that in mind, you’ll be satisfied. Silly thing that I am, I kept getting distracted by the plot, which led to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. ( )
  suetu | Jul 16, 2009 |
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. ( )
  ladydzura | Jun 30, 2009 |
Mark Lockwood is assigned to interview legendary soprano Merce Casals in order to ghostwrite her autobiography. When Casals unexpectedly dies, a more experienced writer is brought in to take over the project. Afraid that someone else will not grasp the essense of the singer, he scoops up his tapes, picks up Casals' husband from the nursing home, and hunkers down to get his story written first. Chapters of the autobiography are intersperces with chapters detailing Lockwood's meetings with Casals and his subesquent escapades with her husband, her nurse, and a Casals impersonator.

The parts of the story in which Merce Casals is not an active participant are kind of uninteresting and implausible. The characters don't seem to behave true to the form that has been established for them. But when The Senora appears, whether through the autobiography or in flashbacks, the story comes alive. From her childhood, youth, and young womanhood in 1930's Spain, her career ups and downs, and her ascent into her "golden years," her story is a fascinating glimpse into the live of a diva, and what it takes for her to get to that point. Mostly well-written, and a quick read. ( )
  tloeffler | Jun 21, 2009 |
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For Juanita, always
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There are moments when the order of life collapses in midbreath, when a missed heartbeat brings on an earthquake.
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The Wonder Singer is an operatic literary caper about one young writer's manic ambition. The ghostwriter's best chance at fame almost disappears when his Diva dies suddenly in her bath. His solution is to steal the tapes, liberate the Diva's aging husband, and write the autobiography on the run.… (more)

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