Hugo Huber, the popular conductor of a silent movie house in New York City, is blessed with a wonderful family. The narrative shifts to his back story: Before he died, Hugo’s grandfather, cantor at a temple in Vienna, had financed his orphaned grandson’s violin training. With the continuing help of an aunt and uncle, Hugo eventually attended the Vienna Conservatory, where he met Liesl, daughter of the principal violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Soon after their marriage, they immigrated to America. Debonair Hugo first served as maestro of a New York City hotel orchestra, then conductor at the movie house. Liesl got involved in costume design at the Metropolitan Opera, encountering Enrico Caruso and others. Then, one of their two children fell ill, fueling the family’s desire for a more tranquil life. Hugo took a job as conductor for the movie house within George Eastman’s cultural complex in Rochester, New York. Unfortunately, other Eastman musicians were malcontents, and there was rampant anti-Semitism, causing the Hubers to further downplay their Jewish heritage. The novel concludes with the Klu Klux Klan planning a demonstration at the Hubers’ home, although the family survives this experience as well as the advent of talkies. In her afterword, White acknowledges that the Hubers are based on the parents of her North Carolina piano teacher, whose piano lessons provided “my first tantalizing taste of Europe.” She effectively mines the riches to be found in this couple’s story, with her novel offering colorful glimpses into the worlds of classical music and opera, Prohibition-era America, and the timing and scoring of music for silent films. Overall, the narrative is engaging, although it occasionally bogs down with nonchronological asides and ends rather abruptly. At its best, however, White’s novel is reminiscent of Ragtime in its fictional depiction of an emerging cultural change.
An entertaining, ambitious historical saga infused with a love of music and inspired by fascinating real-life figures.