mini-review · stuff I read

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

42283234Summary from Goodreads:
A kaleidoscopic debut novel about love, family, genius, and the madness of art, circling the life of eccentric composer Erik Satie and La Belle Époque Paris, from a writer who is “wildly entertaining” (San Francisco Chronicle), “startlingly ingenious” (Boston Globe), and “impressively sharp” (New York Times Book Review).

Erik Satie begins life with every possible advantage. But after the dual blows of his mother’s early death and his father’s breakdown upend his childhood, Erik and his younger siblings — Louise and Conrad — are scattered. Later, as an ambitious young composer, Erik flings himself into the Parisian art scene, aiming for greatness but achieving only notoriety.
As the years, then decades, pass, he alienates those in his circle as often as he inspires them, lashing out at friends and lovers like Claude Debussy and Suzanne Valadon. Only Louise and Conrad are steadfast allies. Together they strive to maintain their faith in their brother’s talent and hold fast the badly frayed threads of family. But in a journey that will take her from Normandy to Paris to Argentina, Louise is rocked by a severe loss that ultimately forces her into a reckoning with how Erik — obsessed with his art and hungry for fame — will never be the brother she’s wished for.
With her buoyant, vivid reimagination of an iconic artist’s eventful life, Caitlin Horrocks has written a captivating and ceaselessly entertaining novel about the tenacious bonds of family and the costs of greatness, both to ourselves and to those we love.

The Vexations is a very intimate novel about the life of Erik Satie and his sister, brother, and two friends who knew him well. The writing is beautiful, particularly in those chapters from Satie’s perspective talking about “touch” or music, and Horrocks described the Montmartre that Satie inhabited so well. The chapters from his sister Louise’s perspective are interesting. These chapters are the only ones told using a first-person narrator; all others, including Satie’s chapters, are told using a close third person perspective. I think I figured out why the author made that choice – Louise outlives every else involved in Satie’s life – but I don’t quite think it was needed. I would also argue that while Satie is the focus of the novel, as a man writing music that needed the world to catch up to him, Louise is as important a character. She brings to life a woman who was a talented pianist, who may have blossomed given the instruction and encouragement that Erik is given (that he rejects), but is instead relegated to the roles of mother, widow, and then branded an unfit mother by the French legal system and a greedy brother-in-law.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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