The early years of thwarted artist Alma Mahler, a still-controversial woman.
Bourgeois bohemian dilettante? Genius foiled by early-20th-century gender bias and bad romantic decisions? These historical appraisals receive equal airing in Sharratt’s (The Dark Lady’s Mask, 2016, etc.) thought-provoking novel, which takes Alma, nee Schindler, from age 19 to 31. Beautiful and musically gifted, Alma is viewed by her mother and stepfather as ripe for the marriage market: they refuse to allow her to enter a conservatory and only grudgingly agree to her taking counterpoint lessons from composer Alex von Zemlinsky. The two fall in love, appearing to be true soul mates, but her parents won't allow her to marry a Jew. They reverse this position when Alma, at 22, transfers her infatuation to the much older and more successful Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, director of the Viennese Court Opera. Although Mahler’s proposal comes with the condition that Alma forego composing, she marries him anyway. Over the years, as Alma gives birth to two daughters, the marriage founders. Alma regrets the loss of her own creative soul, and Mahler grows increasingly obsessed with work, treating her more as hausfrau than muse. Vienna’s entrenched anti-Semitism drives the couple to New York, where Mahler escapes European critical ridicule to enjoy acclaim and riches, first as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and then of the newly reorganized New York Philharmonic. Their eldest child’s death from diphtheria and Alma’s subsequent miscarriages further strain the relationship, particularly since Mahler seems to blame Alma for these tragedies. Crises mount as Alma takes a rest cure for a nervous breakdown and Mahler is diagnosed with a heart condition. At the sanatorium, Alma meets 27-year-old architect Walter Gropius, and once more she confuses her desire for self-realization with other desires. Sharratt is adept at presenting the internal conflicts that dog her protagonist, with the close third-person narration capturing her often skewed perspective. The known biographical facts suggest that Alma could never reconcile her ambitions with her era’s constraints on women. In Sharratt’s bracing portrayal, though, Alma’s limits seem largely self-imposed.
Readers will enjoy forming their own opinions on who was really the victim here.