THE VEXATIONS by Caitlin Horrocks


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Horrocks follows up her well-regarded story collection, This Is Not Your City (2011), with a rueful novel about composer Erik Satie, his family, and friends.

The parameters of the Satie siblings’ lives are set shortly after their mother dies in 1872. Their overwhelmed father leaves them with relatives and vanishes; when he returns with a new wife, only Erik and younger brother Conrad are reclaimed, while Louise is left with their great-uncle. Her rage and bitterness are mostly justified by subsequent events in her life, chronicled in a first-person narration so vivid it frequently steals focus from the chapters narrated by Erik, Conrad, Erik’s friend Philippe, and Suzanne, the only woman emotionally cut-off Erik comes close to loving. The twin traumas of his mother’s death and the involuntary separation from Louise have made him pathologically wary of any kind of connection, including those that might smooth the way for his deliberately provocative music. Aspiring poet Philippe collaborates with Erik for a while and admires his friend’s disdain for compromise but ultimately opts for a more stable existence. Horrocks paints an atmospheric portrait of bohemian Paris and a poignant one of Satie and his avant-garde circle, who “lived in the yet: not now, but soon” when their art would be recognized. Meanwhile, they drink and scandalize the bourgeoisie with their bad behavior. An episode of unintentional cruelty cements Erik’s estrangement from Louise, whose losses mount in a wrenching account made bearable only by the fact that she narrates it as an elderly survivor in 1944. Erik’s story takes longer to engage readers, but gradually his austere passion and fierce dedication to his music become as affecting as Louise’s catalog of pain and deprivation. A keening finale revisits him at 21, with “the most popular seven minutes he will ever write…fading away in the sweaty, soot-dark room.”

Finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration.

Pub Date: July 30th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-316-31691-0
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2019


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