Weaving together a dizzying number of intersecting plots, Sargent (Museum of Human Beings, 2009) captures the bustling excitement—and seedy grit—of early 1920s Boston.
As a child in Naples, angel-voiced orphan Rafaele Pèsca is taken under the wing of a renegade priest and castrated to protect his “one and only grace”—never mind that the practice is newly banned by the church. When higher-ups catch wind of what’s happened, Raffi is forbidden ever to sing again, at all, for any reason—his voice, having been “disfigured by the devil,” is now an abomination against God. And with that, the boy is put on a boat headed for an orphanage in New York City to “start a new life” not defined by “what is simply a medical condition.” But as adolescence approaches, his differences make him a target among the boys, and as his peers prepare to head to the front, Raffi hops on a boat back to Italy, where he excels on staff at the Hotel Forum, having discovered “a transforming eroticism in making strangers’ lives more fulfilled.” His return, though, is short-lived, and, rejected in Rome, Raffi once again heads toward America, this time to seek his fortune in Boston—ideally, at the world-famous Parker House, epicenter of the city’s elite. Arriving in the city, Raffi hustles his way into a job waiting tables and finds himself inducted into a society swirling with energy. Under the wing of Victor, his colleague and confidant, Raffi is introduced to the world of poet Amy Lowell and her partner, the actress Ada Russell, and their associates (many, though not all, of the characters here will ring a bell). He encounters love and tragedy, mobsters and mediums. While Raffi is the novel’s hero, the book is a whirlwind of perspectives and voices—some more successful than others—from art collector Belle Gardner to a colony of bacterium. The sheer number of characters can make the novel somewhat difficult to track, but the reward is a richly atmospheric melodrama that resonates.
Sweeping and ambitious.