This debut novel about a young man’s quest for his father gives glimpses of Beethoven in his prime as well as in his final months.
At age 11, George Thompson learns that he’s the illegitimate son of Beethoven, once his Bavarian-born mother Hannah Bekker’s piano teacher. In 1826, George, having lost his sweetheart and his job as a printer’s apprentice, leaves Virginia for Europe to find his real father. Posing as an English nobleman writing for the Williamsburg Post, he is conned into staying at a Vienna “whoretel” (brothel) and finally gains admittance to Herr Beethoven, who is just months from death. As George conducts a meandering interview through questions written in a notebook and steels himself to announce the true reason for his visit, he learns more about the deaf, irascible composer—everything from the four marriage proposals he made to his public contest with French pianist Daniel Steibelt and the triumphant premiere of his Ninth Symphony: the audience “rose as one, row after row, like a rhythmic wave. Hats and handkerchiefs waved in the air, hands clapped high above heads, all exploding with adoration for their deaf Lion of Vienna. With his eyes, Ludwig heard their joy.” Jones gracefully switches between George’s first-person account of the interview process and vivid third-person flashbacks to Beethoven’s earlier life. She is careful to show all sides of the maestro’s identity: his erratic behavior and penchant for making enemies but also his musical genius and perseverance in spite of his disability—just as George vows to Beethoven, “I’ll neither deify nor damn you.” The plot nimbly blends the historical record—with brief appearances from Beethoven’s sister-in-law Johanna and nephew Karl—and invented elements, like George’s relationship with the prostitute Gabrielle and the surprise consequences of his impersonation of a “Sir.” Although there’s been a misunderstanding about the nature of Hannah’s relationship with Beethoven, George nevertheless learns of the high regard in which the composer holds her—she inspired Leonore, the heroine of his only opera, Fidelio. The short Book 3, set in the United States after Beethoven’s death, feels mostly unnecessary, but it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of this charming picaresque.
The protagonist lovingly describes Beethoven as “an honest soul, lined with deep fissures and clumsy mendings”—which is just how he comes across in this deeply researched, accomplished work of historical fiction.