The fallout comes quickly, though Mack proves more invested in examining the characters’ milieu and attitudes than in dramatizing each beat of this promising melodrama. A vicious postcoital eruption between the lovers gets rapidly summarized, without inviting readers too far into Elisabeth’s head or heart, and much of the subsequent storytelling is epistolary, as Elisabeth and company pen artful, engaging letters. Those circumspect missives invite readers to guess at the width of the gulf between Elisabeth’s written words and actual feelings, especially once this defiantly independent woman, a musician invited to perform for Otto von Bismark himself, elects to marry.
Mack’s prose often soars, and her scenes and letters pulse with witty remarks and jolts of hard truth. Elisabeth’s promise, so brilliant in the opening pages, gets dulled away by the novel’s ending, which poses resonant questions about the limited choices that talented women have faced throughout history. The story’s power is diminished by a lack of scenes in the final third—and a lack of Elisabeth’s arresting presence—though there is some thematic weight in the choice. It’s as if, in the end, as she’s swallowed by a conventional life, Elisabeth’s lost to the reader, too. But readers invested in the milieu or in historic domestic tragedy will find much to relish.
Takeaway: Lovers of historic fiction may savor this evocative novel of a woman’s romances and ambitions in 19th century Germany
Great for fans of: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A-