(nb: I received a review copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley)
When NYC-based pianist Lee Howe’s partner, mezzo-soprano Devorah Manikian, moves to California, the couple is separated by more than just physical distance. Lee feels personally and professionally abandoned, and more than a little bit worried. Something seems a bit hinky about Devorah’s new benefactress, the millionaire Annajean Eggers.
Sure, Annajean comes from one of the Southern California’s oldest and wealthiest families, so it could be that Annajean really is founding an opera company, and she really does want Devorah to star in “Carmen.” But Lee can’t shake the feeling that something is off, and she’s filled with dread for her lover’s safety.
When she gets word that Devorah was killed in a housefire, Lee is devastated. After pulling herself together, she has to investigate for herself. She puts her conservatory job on hold, flies to California, and goes to the Eggers estate. When she gets there, she discovers it’s an honest-to-ostentation castle–and for a brief moment, she swears she hears ever-so-faintly her lover’s distinctive singing.
Was it really Devorah? Or was it just Lee’s grief-crushed brain wishing for the impossible, or maybe a side-effect from the psychotropic meds Lee took to cope with her loss?
Perhaps leading with her heart and not her head, Lee becomes convinced that Devorah is still alive, and being held prisoner by Annajean Eggers. Her big-hearted friends believe in Lee, even if they can’t believe her wild theory.
Lee’s bittersweet search for closure lay at the heart of Lillian Q. Irwin’s new release, “Ghost Trio,” one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The basic story device–can Lee really believe what she heard–reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” where James Stewart is sure he keeps seeing Kim Novak, even after he watched her die. This core idea is painted against the world of professional classical musicians.
Music is the first area where this novel could have gone wrong. I’ve read so many books where a character with only a nodding acquaintance with practicing somehow thrives as a professional musician, where some schmo off the street suddenly sings like Pavarotti or plays piano like Van Cliburn.
“Ghost Trio” gets this right. Even top professionals practice religiously, hours and hours each day. It takes incredible discipline to make it to music’s upper echelon, and just as much discipline to stay there.
Also, I don’t think this story would have worked had Lee and Devorah been a hetero couple. Women think and love differently than men do. I doubt a man would have taken the leap of faith Lee did. Most likely, a man would have read the Medical Examiner’s report and been satisfied. If he did hear something at the scene of his beloved’s death, I think he would have accepted a simple explanation: it was the meds, or a seagull’s cry echoing on a cliff, or wishful thinking.
Lillian Q. Irwin is the nom de plume of a California Lesbian couple who have been together over 40 years. One is a Lesbian historian; her partner is a professional musician. This pairing explains a great deal about “Ghost Trio.” First off, each of the gay couples in this novel is believable. They are drawn neither as parodies nor cliches, but as pairings of normal people who fall in love, get jealous and fight, make-up, and work hard to honor their commitment to one other. They’re just both XX, not an XX and an XY.
The musical detail in “Ghost Trio” is truly outstanding. The musicians here are not members of giant symphonies, but of smaller groups–a trio of piano, violin, and cello, e.g., or a classical vocalist working with a solo pianist for accompaniment. The works listed span a broad range of styles and composers. Even the book’s title comes from Beethoven’s Opus 70 in D, the second movement of which is somewhat chilling, causing the piece to be nicknamed “The Ghost Trio.”
Finally, the quality of the writing in “Ghost Trio” is simply outstanding. Descriptions are lush when they need to be; the characters’ actions and dialogue are sharply written. The writing brings to mind a complex piano piece a gifted musician has practiced thousands of times, till every note is where it should be, and precise as a metronome tick.
“Ghost Trio” is not a book that will give you whiplash from jerking plot twists and non sequitur action sequences. However, with elegant prose, wonderfully drawn characters, and an intriguing story to tell, you won’t miss the typical thriller hullabaloo even a little bit.
Very Highly Recommended