Friday, May 22, 2009

ArtsPaper books: 'The Rose Variations' intrigues after slow start

By Aviva L. Brandt

The Rose Variations describes the journey of a “girl composer” from graduate school student to acclaimed artist with plenty of drama, from a gay tenure-seeking colleague who seduces her in an attempt to appear heterosexual to a stint on a lesbian commune boasting a bearded female cellist who has disappeared from the international music scene.

This first novel of playwright Marisha Chamberlain (Scheherazade) starts slowly; it was easy to put down for the first third of the book and not engaging enough to want to immediately jump back into it. But it slowly picks up steam, and by the time I hit the last 100 pages, I couldn’t stand any interruptions until I finished it.

Chamberlain is a Renaissance woman of sorts. In addition to at least six plays, her ballet, The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes, was performed nationally on tour by the Children’s Theater Company, and her chamber opera collaboration with Carol Barnett, Meeting at Seneca Falls, premiered in 1997. She is currently working with composer Mary Ellen Childs on a full-length opera, tentatively titled Propeller, commissioned by Nautilus Theater for premiere next year, as well as writing her second novel.

The Rose Variations seemed stilted at first, but in retrospect, Chamberlain’s writing reflects protagonist Rose MacGregor’s hesitancy and insecurities, and the ever-shifting world of feminism in the 1970s, as a pioneer in a field dominated by men. Rose gets her first break when one of her graduate school compositions wins a major award.

She wrote clever, angry compositions which gained her attention, leery respect, and eventually prizes; one especially, which she titled ‘The Loser,’ a chamber piece with a steady drone of cello, almost a march, over which poured, quite suddenly, skittering notes like a bag bursting and then a rustling and crackling like the contents of the bag being stuffed in again, quickly, quickly, while the march pressed on. Something about the piece made people laugh, and when she got up to introduce it, she learned to adopt a tongue-in-cheek tone, for the piece sounded not like losing, but finding and grabbing and winning.”

The Loser gets Rose, then 25, an interview at a St. Paul, Minn., college for a temporary professorship, a job she accepts since she has no other offers and, in 1975, it’s unlikely that anything better is going to come her way. Rose moves from Philadelphia to St. Paul with nothing but a few T-shirts, a couple pairs of jeans, sneakers, a box of books, her bicycle and her cello, and sets up home for nine months in the home of the department chairman, who is taking a year’s sabbatical in Europe because his wife discovered he was having an affair with his secretary.

From there, Rose’s life gets more and more complicated as she has a series of failed romances. She desperately wants a partner, yet she runs away when things get too serious and insists that she wants to be alone to concentrate on her work. Yet on a night when everyone is toasting her professional success, she realizes that it is not really enough:

“Tomorrow the reviews would be out and they’d be good, possibly raves. That was something to hold onto: columns of black and white where her name would appear, her place in the world. Perhaps she would recognize herself in print. …

No matter how people had flocked to her concert, she’d go to bed by herself that night, while Lila curled up with Josie, Ursula with Bogdan, Natalie with Guy, Doris Atkinson with her Harold, possibly even her mother with her father. Emma was alone, but she’d had her husband and her children. Rose had made such a big deal, such a cause of being alone. But that hadn’t been hard to accomplish, had it? What was solitude but an absence, a lack? Really, it was nothing at all.”

Frances, the department secretary at the college, is a foil to Rose. At the start of the novel, Frances keeps a nameplate on her desk that reads “The Beauty” rather than her name, and sits at the center of a glass cubicle that she calls the fishbowl. When Rose tells Frances at their first meeting that she needs a nameplate like it, Frances immediately replies, “You? You don’t need one.” Because, of course, Rose has true talent and training. The two become frenemies, both wanting what the other one has at different points in the book.

As someone with no discernible musical ability despite many years of instrument (flute, piano, guitar) and voice lessons, it’s hard to know how accurately Chamberlain portrays the process of composing, but the book’s descriptions are fascinating. Rose takes her inspiration from everything from her infant niece to bears foraging in a field of oats.

Even after Rose achieves a level of success, with a steady stream of commissions and a tenure-track job at the college, she still has trouble being taken seriously as a composer. She can’t, it seems, escape the old label of “girl composer,” a level of sexism that is hard to imagine more than 30 years later.

“Orchestra conductors and music directors – men, almost all of them – imagined they showed themselves to be enlightened by commissioning female composers to celebrate women. A new piece for Amelia Earhart’s birthday or Louisa May Alcott’s or Eleanor Roosevelt’s or to celebrate the women who fought for the vote? Of course! Rose was thereby presented as a woman among women, but not as a composer among composers. Was it any wonder that the music produced this way, lacking true artistic endorsement, often carried an underlying sadness?”

The novel ends with an unexpected, but not shocking, twist that wraps up most of the threads but leaves the reader hanging, just a bit, on what Rose’s future holds.

Aviva L. Brandt, a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., loves music but her only talent for it is in appreciation. She previously worked as a writer and editor for The Associated Press for 15 years.

THE ROSE VARIATIONS, by Marisha Chamberlain, Soho Press, 341 pages, $24.

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