An adoring nephew pays homage to his childhood savior, a star of European operettas, in a masterly, unsentimental evocation of childhood and exile.
A train is taking a small boy and his affectionate but agitated father across snow-covered Romania. The boy’s mother has mysteriously disappeared, and, in Paris, he will be sent on alone to his uncle in London. It’s 1937, Romania is turning fascist, and seven-year-old Andrei Petrescu will now turn into Andrew Peters. Although he will never see his parents again, he’ll get a magnificent welcome from Uncle Rudolf and his devoted entourage. Rudolf Peterson (formerly Rudi Petrescu) is one of Romania’s most famous sons; his thrilling tenor and dashing good looks have made this consummate ladies’ man as rich as Croesus. What matters for little Andrew, though, is his uncle’s outpouring of love, which offsets Andrew’s recurrent nightmares. The boy always comes first for Rudolf, even if it means displacing a hot blond so he can cuddle his nephew to sleep. Still, Andrew will understand, in good time, that his uncle’s cheerful front hides a deep melancholy. Rudolf was once headed for great roles in grand opera, but he succumbed to the easy money of operettas, which he now views with contempt. It will be 11 years before Rudolf tells Andrew his parents’ fate: his half-Jewish mother was raped and murdered by anti-Semites, and his father drowned himself in the Seine. Has Rudolf been overprotective? Not in Andrew’s eyes, for, after his uncle’s early retirement and a brief, joyless marriage of his own, he devotes himself entirely to Rudolf’s business affairs, “the contented prisoner of his melancholy.” His uncle’s death changes nothing, and here Bailey allows Andrew to slip too easily into the unlived life, that staple of English literary fiction.
Veteran Bailey (Kitty and Virgil, 2000, etc.) navigates with economy and grace between two lives and among many time-frames. This British author’s skills—and magic touch for showing love at work—make for a texture unusually rich.