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