Friday, April 23, 2021

Book Review: Rhapsody

By Jami Denison

Historical fiction, soaked in details about iconic times in history, is one of the most challenging genres to write in and one of the most enjoyable genres to read. Historical fiction about real people is even more challenging; the goal is to convey the essential truth of a person’s life, looking backwards for meaning and even themes while creating dialogue and confrontation. At the same time, the author must account for the times in which the protagonist lived. Balancing all these elements is quite an act. 

Author Mitchell James Kaplan has written his third novel, Rhapsody, about Katharine “Kay” Swift, an American composer who was George Gershwin’s collaborator and lover, despite being married to another man and mother to his three children. I’m not a huge Gershwin fan and had never heard of Swift, but missing Broadway desperately, was eager to learn more about these musicals and the woman that helped create them. 

“Behind every great man is a great woman,” is the saying, but sometimes the woman would prefer not to be behind the man, but standing by his side. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible for women in the early part of the 20th century, and Swift was no exception. A classically trained pianist who grew up working class, her fortunes changed when she met Jimmy Warburg, scion of a wealthy banking family. They married and Kay gave him three daughters, but never got over her love for the piano. Introduced to Gershwin, she fell for both the man and his talent—her open marriage to Jimmy (and constant child care) allowing her much freedom to pursue her romantic and creative goals. While Kay’s musical talent and aspirations are an important part of her character, most of the book centers Kay’s identity in relation to her husband or George; the author even chooses to end the book with Gershwin’s death, although Kay continued to work and lived until age 95. 

A person’s life doesn’t move in a straight line, but most books are linear and focus on plot points that get the protagonist closer to her goal. Writers of historical fiction need to square a circle, to keep the focus on events in the protagonist’s life, but at the same time, feature the historical incidents of importance. Swift’s relationships with her husband and Gershwin unfolded against the backdrop of tumultuous times—the end of World War I, suffragism, the Great Depression (which did not affect Kay’s family at all) and the build-up to World War II. Swift and Gershwin aren’t directly affected by any of this, so Kaplan has to thread the needle by having his characters comment on these crises but never participate in them. (At times, they appear absolutely callous, such as a scene where the two step over families sleeping on the sidewalk to get to their premiere.) They’re more involved in the civil rights issues of the age, as Gershwin spends years developing Porgy and Bess, learning about the Gullah culture, and working with African-American artists. These episodes seem timely and consequential, as the musicians grapple with cultural appropriation and who has the right to tell certain stories, issues artists deal with today.

I found Rhapsody to be an uneven book. The beginning is cluttered and noisy; the language pretentious. Some of the dialogue was the kind of complicated, overwritten, arch exchanges found in Hollywood movies of the time. But as Kaplan got further into the story, those trappings fell away and a more streamlined structure emerged. At its best, the novel reminded me of last year’s Fosse/Verdon mini-series, two collaborative geniuses producing art together but unable to make the personal relationship work. (Swift actually wrote shows both with Gershwin and her husband, who worked under the name Paul James.)

But the music is the core of the story, and this presents Kaplan with his greatest challenge. While paintings and dance and other types of art can be depicted on the page, music can only be described, and it has a special vocabulary not necessarily known to non-musicians. Jazz, in particular, defies written description, yet the Jazz Age is vitally important to the story. Kaplan gives it his best shot, citing specific pieces by Beethoven and Mozart that classically trained Kay plays; in other passages, metaphors do the work of conveying the sound. 

Swift was definitely a trailblazer, the first woman to score a hit musical completely. Rhapsody is an interesting look at what it took to be a female artist a century ago. At the same time, many women today make some of the same sacrifices for their art. Behind every great man is a great woman, but behind every great woman is effective child care and a room of her own. If Swift hadn’t had nannies and an absent husband, would she have blazed those trails? What art today has not been produced by female artists, thanks to the challenge of the COVID age?  

Thanks to Gallery for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Mitchell James Kaplan:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please see the Kay Swift Trust response to this book at www.kayswift.com