The Daugh­ters

by Adri­enne Celt, Liveright/W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 272 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

Adri­enne Celt’s de­but novel starts with a pre­lude: A woman sits un­clothed on a tree branch, hum­ming. When a tired man en­coun­ters her, he hur­riedly climbs the tree, ea­ger to be with the woman he knows is his true love. They em­brace; his heart gives out.

The woman is the rusalka, a spirit whose lore and power cling to five gen­er­a­tions of women: Lus­cia, or Lulu, is an ac­claimed so­prano who is “on hold” af­ter a per­ilous child­birth with Kara. Lulu’s mother, Sara, was also a singer, but rather than gilded opera houses, she haunted Chicago’s smoky bars, with a voice “low and easy, waves against a boat and wine drip­ping down the neck of a bot­tle.” Be­fore Sara fled when Lulu was nine, she lived with her daugh­ter and mother, Ada, in the Ukrainian Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood of Chicago. There, Ada — Baba Ada to her ador­ing grand­daugh­ter Lulu — could buy wa­ter that had been car­bon­ated in Poz­nan´ , Poland, the home­town where she was raised by Greta, her mother, Lulu’s great-grand­mother.

Greta hovers over ev­ery­thing in Lulu’s child­hood world, a force as be­guil­ing as the

rusalka. Ada tells Lulu sto­ries of her great-grand­mother in which en­chant­ment and re­al­ity are in­ter­locked: Greta ar­riv­ing at a dance at her vil­lage’s fa­mous pi­ano fac­tory and turn­ing the dancers into stat­ues of ice, or dig­ging a grave for a child and be­ing en­coun­tered by a mys­te­ri­ous man, who of­fers her a Faus­tian deal. “Ada taught ... that Greta’s magic set our fam­ily line in mo­tion: women who came from women, women who came with mu­sic,” Lulu says. Lulu fears that the magic is in fact a curse, to which her own daugh­ter is now vul­ner­a­ble.

The grave­side deal is op­er­atic, as is much of Celt’s novel. Dan­ger, de­sire, and se­crecy per­me­ate the story (so do in­fi­delity and be­trayal), yet some­how the tone is even, al­most can­did. Celt uses a sure hand to keep the story from veer­ing to­ward melo­drama. Se­duc­tions hap­pen off­stage; what we see in­stead are scenes be­tween a man and a woman in which what is not said is what mat­ters.

That al­lows some of the most dra­matic mo­ments to un­fold on the stages of opera houses, where Lulu’s el­e­men­tal tal­ent erupts. “Death and de­spair blaze all around me!” she sings as the Reine de la Nuit from

The Magic Flute, her sig­na­ture role (she “pre­fer [s] to sing the songs of witches”). “I un­did them by the but­tons,” she ex­ults of the oper­a­go­ers, “I burned off their clothes.” In a cen­ter­piece scene, her mother sneaks young Lulu into a clan­des­tine per­for­mance of the opera whose tragic hero­ine shares Lulu’s name. The child’s heart pounds as she lis­tens to notes “like a guil­lo­tine blade.” “To know an opera you must ... emerge into its world and lose your­self there with no hope of ever es­cap­ing com­pletely,” an older Lulu says. (Santa Fe’s opera renown is briefly men­tioned, with a bit of a dig: A pro­duc­tion of Lulu is be­ing planned in New Mexico, “oddly enough.”)

Even if some plot points seem inessen­tial — such as an in­ter­lude in Mon­go­lia — and oth­ers ap­pear to teeter on a precipice with­out ever fall­ing over into real res­o­lu­tion, Celt’s novel is a note­wor­thy de­but, suf­fused with the mys­tery and com­plex­ity of artis­tic and fem­i­nine strength. — Grace La­batt

Adri­enne Celt reads from “The Daugh­ters” at 6 p.m. on Thurs­day, Sept. 3, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226).

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