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Book Review: The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax

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Classical music lovers and those interested in Spain will be well-served by The Spanish Bow, debut novel of journalist Andromeda Romano-Lax, who was inspired by the life of Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Although the narrative is sometimes captivating, those not so musically inclined or knowledgeable about Spain may not find it quite as engaging.

Feliu Delargo was only six years old when he was bequeathed a bow by his father, who had died fighting for Spain in Cuba at the end of the 19th century. Being poor and from a small village in the north of Spain, Feliu had few musical options and tried the violin, for which the bow seemed too big. When the piano prodigy Justo Al-Cazzera brought his trio to the village, Feliu knew as soon as he heard the cello that he wanted — no, needed — to play the instrument.

Unfortunately, there was not a single cello in the village. Feliu played the violin and piano until his mother took him to the nearest city, Barcelona, at 14, as much to escape a conflict with a powerful man in town as to further Feliu's education. Feliu dedicated himself, struggled, and excelled. By the time anarchic Barcelona became too dangerous for him to stay, Feliu was given a position at the Spanish court in Madrid, where he studied further, lost his virginity, and befriended the queen. He also met Al-Cazzera again, and when the court stopped supporting Feliu, he started to tour with the former child star. Before long, Feliu began to be noticed and eventually became a star himself. He would work with Al-Cazzera on and off for 25 or more years, through civil war in Spain, two world wars, and a tumultuous relationship with Aviva, the Italian violinist who fills out their trio.

The Spanish Bow starts out strong. Romano-Lax clearly visualized how a young peasant boy could be taken by the cello, and how playing music could transport him. This is understandable, since she is a serious amateur cellist herself. As Feliu moves out of boyhood into young adulthood and serious study, however, the voice and the vision become diluted. While life at court is still richly imagined, by the time Feliu goes on tour with Al-Cazzera, the music is sidelined; the concerts and recordings that earn Feliu fame are only alluded to. A love triangele between Feliu, Justo, and Aviva is hinted at but never detailed. We hear of Feliu's obsession with Aviva, but he restrains himself, and we never really know what Aviva thinks, other than what she shows by her actions (obsession with the son she was forced to give up, drinking and taking drugs).

The story takes the form of Feliu telling his recollections to a journalist, which the reader finds out at the beginning of the book but is not reminded of until the end, when the journalist's identity is revealed. The story would have been greatly enlivened had we had glimpses all along that this was in fact a conversation between these two, because the pressman's parentage is important.

Feliu's story is interesting, but the questions of action in the face of evil and what is the real purpose of art are just too abstract to drive a narrative. Romano-Lax tells us in her concluding author's note that she started out to write a non-fiction book about Pablo Casals, and found herself wondering about the function of music in the world, something she could better address in fiction. This explains the change in the tone of the book as it progressed. The story of a child discovering and loving music is truly compelling, as opposed to that of political conflict and conscience in early 20th century Europe, illustrating the old adage that writers should write what they know.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.