Sensual isolation: two words that come to mind when considering The Metropolis Case, the debut novel by Matthew Gallaway. In Gallaway’s world, characters burn with intensity. Their fiery glow makes them somehow terrifically alive but also, it seems, inevitably alone. Structured in a series of “acts,” this ambitious novel weaves together four stories, each occurring in a different time and place. The characters have at least one thing in common: All become nearly obsessed with the opera Tristan and Isolde.

Our cast is comprised of a mature opera singer about to deliver the best performance of her life, a dissatisfied lawyer who watches the Twin Towers crumble from his office window, a teenage soprano who desperately wants to escape Pittsburgh and a dapper 19th-century Parisian who will play the first-ever Tristan. Gallaway writes about the opera with such finesse that one can nearly hear the music—or at least long to purchase the soundtrack.

Even for a reader unacquainted with opera, The Metropolis Case enthralls. Theatrical history, training at Julliard, opening night at the Metropolitan—this is engaging and unusual subject matter. Gallaway draws unlikely but totally plausible connections between music from The Velvet Underground and Tristan and Isolde. Behind the lovely set, dark passions drive most of the characters. The women remain emotionally detached for much of the novel, maintaining distance in order to focus on their operatic careers. Meanwhile, the men pursue love affairs with other men, and seek to come to terms with their homosexuality in the context of two very different societies. The opera seems to offer a point of connection by which the characters might find themselves and each other.

Occasionally The Metropolis Case starts to feel heavy-handed, particularly toward the end, as the reader begins to glimpse how all the storylines may resolve (the characters themselves note this, and call it “fate”). Additionally, certain scenes seem like failed attempts at high drama. Despite these flaws, however, the tale has a masterful quality that satisfies. The Metropolis Caseis an intriguing debut from a fresh, unique voice.

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