Readers who shun historical fiction, dismissing the genre as a literary oxymoron, be forewarned: Rita Charbonnier's novel, Mozart's Sister, transcends all the tired stereotypes, winning over even the most cynical readers with its plaintive lyricism and beguiling narrative.
To be sure, Charbonnier's debut English language novel, as translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, defies the constraints of literary genre itself. Thus, what could have been merely a fictionalized symphony of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life story with a minor key of 18th-century sibling rivalry thrown in for good measure is instead a dissonant literary opera which provokes more questions than it answers. Charbonnier has chosen Wolfgang's older sister as the narrator of this story. Maria Anna, known as Nannerl, was a gifted musician in her own right, who performed alongside her baby brother throughout Europe until the family patriarch allegedly demanded that his daughter relinquish her role as a gifted young musician, and instead teach piano lessons to finance young Wolfgang's career. Despite the diversion of Nannerl's romantic suitor, with whom she communicates via elegantly poignant and restrained love letters, Charbonnier remains vigilant to the historic minutia she uncovered prior to writing her novel. An actor, opera singer and pianist by profession, Charbonnier has said that as a performer she became intrigued after learning that Wolfgang had a musical sister, who had been diminished to little more than a footnote in the archives.
In the end, Charbonnier's novel implores us to ask, was Mozart a misogynistic musical genius? Or was classical music's poster child prodigy a sensitive soul, manipulated and ultimately destroyed by all those who would benefit from his preternatural gifts? The answer to both questions is, of course, yes, and Charbonnier is a brave and smart enough writer to wrap her literary arms around the lovely messiness of it all. Karen Ann Cullotta is a journalism instructor at Roosevelt University in Chicago.