On Books: A Violin’s Life

The Book: Antonietta – John Hersey

“Read me,” said the book, “for I have been waiting on the shelf for a very long time.”

And so I did.

Antonietta follows the life of a very special Stradivari violin from its creation to modern times.  The book takes form in five acts, with “Intermezzi” in between each, which allow the reader to follow the instrument as she encounters such famous entities as Mozart (and all who know me know why this book was rescued from a tag sale), Berlioz, and Stravinsky before finally ending up with a businessman named Spenser.

What really intrigued me about the novel was the fact that each act was a different writing style:  when the instrument is being built in the home of Antonio Stradivari, it is that of a regular novel; in Mozart’s presence, the story continues on in the form of letters.  With Berlioz, the story is written in a series of movements (as would be found in a symphony).  With Stravinsky, the point of view changes between a trio of characters.  When Antonietta finally reaches Spenser, the tale is in the form of a screenplay.  Each different ​style adds a fresh perspective to the violin’s life.

I found that the three “Acts” in the middle of the novel (Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky) were the strongest.  The chapter with Stradivari was very technical due to the fact that it surrounds Antonietta’s creation, and at times I found myself skimming the more tedious details of her construction.  While this did not make the chapter unenjoyable per say, I did feel a bit bogged down by minute bits of information.  Mozart’s chapter I found to be the strongest – and most entertaining, as I laughed out loud at a lot of the letters – but this could be due to bias.  That aside, the back and forth was at times heartbreaking as well as funny, and I felt that Hersey had done Mozart quite well.  Berlioz and Stravinsky were also moving as characters – their chapters were well written and dynamic.  However, the final chapter with Spenser was by far the weakest.  Perhaps that was the point, as Spenser claims to be tone-deaf, and because Antonietta had changed drastically between its previous and current owner, but there was a lack of passion and respect for the instrument that had been at the forefront of the other chapters.  The characters also seemed flat and stubborn, which was also probably intentional, but it left a sense of dismay by the end of the novel.

That being said, I did enjoy the book overall.  Hersey was able to bring Antonietta to life, and her story was quite compelling.

I also found myself wanting to look up some music by those composers in the novel who are not as familiar to me (Schoenberg anyone?). Thank God for YouTube.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

-MC

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