'Sleeping with Schubert': invaded by genius

July 25, 2004|By Lisa Simeone | Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

Sleeping with Schubert, by Bonnie Marson. Random House. 400 pages. $21.95

Where does creativity come from? Is it innate, in the genes? Or is it some kind of sacred visitation, unbidden, mysterious? The ancient Greeks believed the latter, that a daemon, or divine spirit, took over one's being and caused one to do extraordinary things. Things like, say, sit down at a piano in the women's shoe department at Nordstrom and suddenly start playing Schubert.

That's the premise of a delightful, if hokey, novel by first-time author Bonnie Marson. In Sleeping with Schubert, the decidedly unmusical Liza Durbin suddenly finds herself possessed by the spirit of 19th century classical composer Franz Schubert.

Wholly unprepared (and who wouldn't be?) for the onslaught of talent and celebrity that come her way, erstwhile lawyer Liza spends the rest of the novel learning as much about herself as about Schubert. But, as protagonists are wont to do in coming-of-age novels, she has to lose herself first.

Liza is trudging along in her legal career in Brooklyn when Schubert overtakes her, and for the first time in her life she feels what it's like to burn brightly. She also worries about the day when the flame will die. But until then, why not make the most of it?

Everyone around her has the same idea, and so we meet the people in Liza's world, old standbys as well as new hangers-on: Greta Pretzky, the famed piano teacher who takes on this clumsy pianistic duckling; Chase Barnes, the pretentious, manipulative, but charming Juilliard composer; Cassie Whitman, Liza's couture-wearing, PR-minded, pushy sister; Mikki Closter, Liza's therapist; Fred and Patrick, Liza's friend and boyfriend, respectively, who have her best interests at heart.

Like an anthropologist observing a tribe, Marson perfectly nails certain aspects of contemporary American middle-class life. In trying to help Eliza figure out her role as Schubert's vessel, Mikki delivers the usual psychotherapy bromides: "I hear you grieving, Liza. The life you knew may be gone forever. That's a natural reason to grieve." The inane, vacuous banter of TV duo Gordy and Jill is a pitch-perfect imitation of real life TV talk show team Regis and Kathie Lee (now Regis and Kelly). The hoity-toity tone of many classical music writers is embodied in the name of the fictional New York Times critic Jonathan Porter-Cringe.

Sometimes the writing is vivid and witty (of the piano-playing in Nordstrom, "When we drew close to the source, the melodies hardened and cracked like dried clay"); other times, it just tries too hard (of a corned-beef-on-rye, "My simple sandwich had become ambrosia on stardust, a Gershwin tune with Picasso on the side").

Liza is not alone in her transformation; Schubert is also a character, speaking in German, trying to understand why he's been brought back to inhabit this red-headed, big-bosomed, 21st century woman. Was it to finish his Unfinished Symphony? Was it to compose still more works, since he was blindingly prolific in his day but died at age 31?

And that brings us to the ending, which mars an otherwise charming book. Sappy and naive, it's perfect made-for-TV material -- fitting, since the movie rights have already been sold. One can just see a "We Are The World" type ending, with everyone joining hands and singing. That's one song Schubert would surely not have written.

Lisa Simeone is host of NPR World of Opera and the weekly foreign affairs TV show Superpower. Her career includes reporting for cultural, news and public affairs programs, and hosting NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

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