Dunlap's latest (after Emilie's Voice) is an uneven but spirited mystery-cum-romance set in 1830s Paris. After cholera claims her mother, the Countess Anne de Barbier-Chouant's cartoonishly cold father, the marquis, locks up her beloved piano and announces that he wants her to wed distant cousin Armand. Anne finds this idea unappealing, but uses Armand as an excuse to secretly visit her mother's friend, patron of the arts Marie d'Agoult. Anne becomes infatuated with the pianist Franz Liszt; at the same time, medical student Pierre Talon falls for her. Liszt, enamored of Marie, offers his services as tutor to Anne, whom he intends to use as cover for his flirtation, but Anne misunderstands and thinks that Liszt is in love with her. Convinced that Liszt is trying to seduce Anne, Marie, whose feelings for Liszt are late-blooming, tries to pair off Anne with Pierre. Dunlap manages to hold her narrative's momentum halfway through the novel, but a slew of too-convenient coincidences and contrived plot twists eventually overwhelm the narrative. The story picks up again when Dunlap focuses on the marquis's secret past. Ultimately, things are unconvincingly explained away. Dunlap's novel is a near-miss. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Liszt's Kissby Susanne Dunlap
At the height of the Romantic era in Paris, there was no bigger celebrity than the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. A fiery and gorgeous Hungarian, he made women swoon at/b>
The romantic story of a young female pianist in cholera-ravaged Paris of 1832, whose own tragedy leaves her susceptible to the passions and scandals of the composer Franz Liszt
At the height of the Romantic era in Paris, there was no bigger celebrity than the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. A fiery and gorgeous Hungarian, he made women swoon at soirees and left a trail of broken hearts behind him. Anne, a countess and talented young pianist whose mother has just died of cholera, hears Franz Liszt in concert and is swept up in his allure. The enigmatic Marie d'Agoult, a friend of Anne's late mother, takes her under her wing and introduces her to the artistic world -- despite the objections of Anne's sullen and sorrowful father.
Anne soon finds herself in the midst of dangerous intrigues, discovering a family secret so shocking that her father will go to any lengths to protect it.
With the ominous presence of Paris's most deadly epidemic looming over every turbulent event, Liszt's Kiss is a rich evocation of a remarkable period as seen through the eyes of a sensitive young artist.
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Black crape covered the windows of the house. The smells of camphor and death hung in the air. The marquise had died only a few hours ago of cholera, a disease that was supposed to attack the poor who lived in dirty, crowded, airless hovels, not the wealthy who lived in mansions in the faubourg Saint Germain. Anne was too numb to do anything but stare out the long windows of the ballroom at Thérèse, who, her face still streaked with tears, carried a basket full of linens to a corner of the courtyard and poured them in a lump onto a bonfire. Billows of black smoke curled up and merged with the flat, gray sky. It was a precaution, Dr. Magendie said. There was likely no danger to the rest of the household, if everyone took chamomile and wore a camphor sachet.
Anne forced herself to turn away from the window. Just three days ago, the marquise had been seated at the pianoforte in the corner of the room. Her eyes had shone with excitement about the music she had recently heard. The foreign pianists who were in Paris, she said, were the greatest geniuses ever known -- especially Monsieur Chopin and Monsieur Liszt. Most of all Liszt, who was quite new to the city. She had promised that the next time he gave a concert, Anne would go with her, despite the marquis's rule to the contrary. When I was your age, I attended concerts every night. Her mother's voice still echoed in her ears. It had all been so sudden. One moment she was in the bloom of health. Then as they watched, she grew pale, clutched her stomach, and became violently ill. Although Anne herself had seen the passage from torment to peace in her mother's face not even a day later, when the doctor told them that she had died, Anne did not believe him. She was convinced that each time she rounded a corner or entered a room in the great house, she would see the marquise walking toward her, or sitting in a favorite chair and smiling at her, just as before.
"What are you doing here?"
Anne jumped. She turned to see her father leaning heavily on his cane just inside the open ballroom door. "Papa!" She ran toward him. He had retreated to the silence of his library soon after the doctor left, and she had not seen him since the moment of her mother's death.
He shrank away from her, turning so that his shoulder prevented her embrace, and put his hand up to shield his eyes as if he could not bear to look at her, or bear to let her see his tears. Anne stopped a little away from him and balled her reaching hands into fists.
"Leave this room at once. Don't ever come in here again."
Anne knew that pain lay beneath the anger in his voice, but still his tone stung her. "Please -- ," she began.
He turned his head to the side and gestured her through the door. Too tired and bewildered to think of disobeying him, Anne left, casting one more glance over her shoulder at the beautiful Pleyel, yearning to run to the instrument and play out her grief.
Since that time, Anne's pain had come and gone in waves. Sleep -- other than in fitful dozes -- was out of the question. Whenever she closed her eyes, her mother's stricken face floated across the blackness. Anne wished she could picture her happy and well, but even when she managed to think back beyond the time of her illness, the marquise still wore an expression of worried sadness. And yet Anne knew that she had been more often cheerful and lively during her lifetime. Why was it not possible to imagine her thus?
There was something, an event, an explanation, a reason, hidden just out of Anne's sight, behind a curtain across a part of her mind that was beyond her reach. She knew it was there, but she did not have the strength to draw that curtain aside. And what difference would it make? Her mother was no more. She would have to find a way to understand that simple fact.
Pierre Talon pulled the sheet up over the face of the young woman who had been telling him only a few hours ago about her childhood in Bretagne, before she had come to Paris to seek work as a seamstress. With a high, thin voice that breathed through cracked lips, she had begged for water with every other sentence and rambled on and on, clinging to life with a thread of narrative. Her efforts had been futile. She lay there dead now, like the twenty others Pierre had witnessed that evening alone. Evening? It was now morning. Through the high windows in the Hôtel-Dieu he could see the sky softening to a dark gray.
"Come, Pierre, we can do no more here."
Pierre's friend Georges pulled him gently away from the stench and moans of the patients who were still in the grip of cholera. The two of them were only medical students who had come to the University of Paris to study surgery with Andral and Louis. The horrible epidemic promoted them quickly to doctors, as they did their utmost with the rest of the students and physicians to deal with this capricious disease. The authorities had already set up cordons sanitaires, and officiers hygiéniques supervised the clearing of garbage and detritus from the streets. And yet still, cholera ravaged the population.
"I don't think I can bear to spend another minute here," Pierre said. It had been three solid days, with only a few stolen hours of sleep.
Georges draped his arm over Pierre's shoulder. "They admitted fewer today. There is word that the epidemic is abating."
Pierre nodded. Together they walked through the deserted streets back to the lodgings they shared on the rue des Bernardins near the university. Just two rooms, with a stove in the corner for heating and cooking. The furnishings were sparse, but Pierre managed to purchase an old square piano, and sometimes he played comic songs to amuse his friends. When he had the apartment to himself, he chose other pieces: sonatas and rondos, arrangements of arias from the opera. He was not very skillful, but he found it soothed his nerves to feel the keys beneath his hands and to fill the air with music.
In this time of disease and death, music was vital.
When they returned that morning, Georges threw himself on the one upholstered chair, and Pierre sat down at the piano. He played some waltzes by Schubert from a book he had purchased two years ago, when he first came to Paris.
Neither of them said a word but listened to the tender melodies until Pierre was too tired to continue.
Anne felt stiff and awkward in her heavy black silk gown, one of her mother's that Thérèse had made over to fit her, which rustled annoyingly whenever she shifted her position. Her father wore clothes she had not seen him in since the death last year of a courtier he had known most of his life. She noted when they climbed into the carriage that there were moth holes in his black felt coat and that the edges of his black armband had started to fray.
There was no time for a proper funeral: the priest had come to the house the day before and told them he could say the requiem by the tomb. Although Anne thought fear of contagion rather than other circumstances made him discourage them from bringing the marquise's coffin to the church, his tears about his lovely parishioner's untimely death were genuine. So too was his shock when he tried to draw father and daughter together and the marquis refused to give him his hand. "The Lord is merciful. He has left Your Excellency the compensation of a daughter to soothe the lonely hours of grieving," Father Jean had said in the singsong voice so familiar to Anne from mass. Her father did not have to say anything for Anne to understand that he felt her presence there more an insult than a compensation.
The marquis's gloved hands lay in tense stillness on his lap. She wished he would reach over and take hold of her. Such a simple gesture would bring her back to the world she knew instead of leaving her suspended somewhere vacant and strange. Anne turned away and stared out the window of the brougham. They drove in a queue of carriages through a dreary rain north toward Père Lachaise, the cemetery that had become the fashionable place to be buried, to lay the marquise in the family vault. The hearse led the way. Anne and her father sat in the carriage directly behind, and whenever they rounded a curve, she could see the black feathers on the horses' bridles bobbing with each step they took.
To reach the cemetery, they had to drive through the poor districts of Paris. Anne raised her camphor sachet to her nose and kept it there, as much to prevent herself from inhaling the overpowering odor of dead bodies piled up in the streets as to protect herself from the disease they were told in pamphlets and in the daily papers could well up from poisonous miasmas. None of the articles had really explained what a miasma was, but it was invisible and sounded dangerous. And Anne was quite ready to believe that some mysterious, unseen force had been at work to make her mother fall ill so suddenly. Certainly there was no justice in it. The marquise was kind and beautiful, gentle and fair. She alone, of the few people Anne had known in her life, could make her father's face light up with a tender smile.
The marquis had stayed mostly out of sight ever since his wife died. Anne saw Julien bring him trays of food in the library and take them away again hardly touched a short while later. He only emerged when it was time to go to the cemetery. Anne was too frightened of his mood to approach him without being summoned. Yet she did not really know why she feared him. He had never been openly cruel to her. Aside from making his wishes known in the form of immutable rules, he simply ignored her most of the time, leaving it to her mother and Thérèse to see that she had everything she needed and to educate her in all the subjects necessary for a young countess to know. She always kissed his proferred cheek before going to bed, but he accepted the kiss in silence. Special occasions entitled her to a pat on the head when he gave her a gift for her birthday or at Christmas.
When she was little, his silence and obliviousness toward her sometimes provoked her to small acts of rebellion. Once Anne hid his cane under a rug because its sound against the floor frightened her so. When her crime was found out, and her mother punished her by tapping her behind gently with the cane, the marquise's own wretched tears and sobs made the experience so painful for Anne that she vowed never to do such a thing again.
As she grew older, Anne had secretly envied her mother for the look the marquis bestowed on her when he watched her come down to dinner, clothed in luxurious silks and velvets and draped with jewels and furs. Thérèse sometimes allowed Anne to sit on the stairs to spy on her parents' parties through the banisters, and she would see admiration for her mother in other gentlemen's eyes as well. The marquise knew her daughter was there but did not mind. She wanted Anne to hear the music, and those parties remained the experience closest to attending a concert that she had ever had. Apart from the occasional celebrated singer or instrumentalist, the small orchestras they engaged introduced her to the sound of strings and woodwinds and brass. Anne recalled a particularly festive occasion -- her mother's birthday, she thought -- when the marquis hired some of the members of the Paris Opera to perform several scenes in their ballroom. She had been allowed to wear her best dress, and she sat on the lap of a duchess to watch. The lavish costumes enchanted her. One of the scenes was a storm, and the sudden roll of the tympani made Anne cry. She thought that thunder and lightning had somehow broken into their own home. The performance halted while Thérèse took Anne up to her bedroom.
Most of the time, though, Anne would listen and watch from her perch on the stairs, unnoticed by the guests. She became aware at a very young age of the way her mother drew admiration wherever she went, and she saw that her father kept his eyes on his wife constantly and always found reasons to touch her -- when he guided her through to the ballroom, when he handed her a glass of champagne, when he asked her to play the piano for their guests.
"Whoa there!" the coachman called out. Their carriage halted so abruptly that Anne was almost thrown off her seat.
"What's wrong?" she asked, but the marquis sat in unblinking silence. Anne raised her thick veils, lowered the window, and poked her head out. "Merciful heaven!"
From every direction, hearses and mourners streamed toward the cemetery, still about half a mile away. It looked to Anne as if the roads themselves were in mourning, covered with black coaches pulled by black horses and driven by coachmen dressed all in black. So many would never be able to gain access to the cemetery at the same time, and up ahead there was some kind of obstruction. She leaned out farther to look.
To Anne's horror, a hearse had turned a corner too sharply, and the coffin it bore had rolled off the bier. In their haste to bury the dead, undertakers did not use many nails to seal the coffins shut; this one had sprung open when it hit the ground and disgorged a purple and swollen body. A young man standing next to the now empty hearse looked around him sadly, and for an awful moment it seemed that no one would come to his aid. For the briefest second, his eyes met Anne's. She pulled her head in and covered her mouth, struggling not to retch.
Anne chose not to look out again, but somehow or other the problem must have been resolved, because they eventually continued their slow progress to the cemetery gates. They waited their turn, and once the gatekeeper admitted them, the horses plodded along the gravel paths through the rows of vaults and memorials that resembled a miniature, Gothic city clinging to the side of the hill. Every third or fourth memorial showed evidence of recent opening and so many fresh flowers had been trampled under the feet of the horses that the air smelled oddly sweet.
The burial service passed in a fog of incense and stifled tears. A small crowd of people came to pay their respects to the marquise. She had been an only child, and both her parents had died soon after Anne was born. As far as Anne knew, there were no other relatives on either side of the family. Her father's only brother had died when she was very young, and she had been told that shortly after his wife also died giving birth to a stillborn child. Anne knew enough from listening to her parents' conversations at the dinner table to understand how the fall of Charles X had assured their banishment from the higher echelons of society. There only remained some close friends of her mother's to bring them news of court -- friends with whom the marquis did not deign to associate. And so the little group of mourners assembled at the Barbier family vault consisted mainly of their servants and a few strangers, perhaps stragglers from other burials, or genteel beggars hoping to be rewarded for their tears with a few sous.
As the priest droned on in Latin, scraps and shreds of thoughts and memories passed through Anne's mind like casual visitors, barely stirring her consciousness. Later, she would remember little of the funeral, except for an engulfing sense of desolation and loss. She would remember little, that is, except for an incident that occurred just as she and her father prepared to climb back into their carriage and retrace their route down the hill, through the outlying districts and back to the familiar luxury of the faubourg Saint Germain.
The doors of the Barbier-Chouant vault had closed with a heavy clunk. The pointy arch of its roofline blurred and swayed before Anne's tear-filled eyes, and she was afraid that she might collapse where she stood. She looked for something, anything, to anchor her to the earth. Her gaze lit upon a tall, slender woman standing apart from the rest of the mourners, wearing a bonnet draped in black chiffon veils that obscured her face. The lady lifted a gloved hand to greet them, then turned and walked away.
"Who is she?" Anne asked.
The marquis had closed his eyes. At the sound of Anne's voice he opened them again, and the vacant expression Anne saw there frightened her. She nodded toward the retreating figure of the woman, who had reached a carriage that had stopped by another grave and was climbing in, assisted by her footman. The marquis turned his eyes slowly in the direction Anne indicated. He flared his nostrils when he saw the lady but did not answer.
Anne let the matter drop. Her father's gray head bowed under the weight of his top hat, and his wrinkled face seemed to close her out more than ever. Yesterday his exclusion took on concrete form when Julien put padlocks on the doors of the ballroom and sealed it shut, giving orders that no one -- not even Anne -- was permitted to enter. She had not yet summoned the courage to ask her father why.
The only explanation she could think of was that the ballroom with its beautiful pianoforte was so vivid a reminder of the marquise that her father could not bear the thought of anyone crossing its threshold again. But didn't he know that all he need do was ask her not to enter? And she would not -- at least not while he was in the house. Anne could stand hardly ever being able to play the piano. But being forbidden altogether? -- It was too much. Along with his wife, the marquis buried music. And without music, Anne thought, He might as well have buried me.
Copyright © 2007 by Susanne Dunlap
Meet the Author
Susanne Dunlap is the author of Émilie's Voice and the former director of development for Connecticut Opera. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Northampton, Massachusetts.
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This novel immediately transports you to a ravaged Paris suffering from the affects of Cholera. Anne is star struck by the handsome & talented Franz Litszt. You find yourself swept up in this beautiful historical romance unable to put it down until you have finished. I never wanted the story to end. I give Suzanne Dunlap a perfect 10. It's a must read book.