The First ViolinDecember 6, 2016
When Alisha recommended Jessie Fothergill’s The First Violin, she mentioned Patricia Brent, Spinster and the Williamsons. Based on that, I guess I was expecting something romcom-like. That is not what I got, but I wasn’t disappointed.
The First Violin is the story of May Wedderburn, the middle daughter of an English vicar. Adelaide, the oldest, is the strong-willed ambitious one, and Stella, the youngest, is smart and practical. May herself is dreamy, idealistic, and musical.
Her uneventful life is interrupted by the arrival of Sir Peter Le Marchant (wealthy, older, creepy as fuck). He wants to marry May, presumably so he can make her life miserable, but she wants nothing to do with him. She’s rescued by a neighbor, Miss Hallam, who is going to Germany to consult an eye doctor. She offers to bring May along as her companion and promises to arrange for singing lessons.
On the way to the city of Elberthal, May gets separated from Miss Hallam, misses her train, and is (sort of) rescued by the mysterious and attractive Eugen Courvoisier. He’ll show up again in Elberthal, but misunderstandings will separate him from May for the better part of the book.
Elberthal is pretty great for May. Her voices catches the attention of Max von Francius, the director of the orchestra, and he offers to give her lessons. She finds him a little sinister at first, but comes to respect him—he’s a great teacher who pushes her to expand her comfort zone, and when Miss Hallam returns to England, he persuades her to allow May to stay and keep studying.
That’s the point at which we first switch over to the second narrator, Friedhelm Helfen. Friedel is Courvoisier’s best friend, and catches you up on Courvoisier’s history (murky) and son (delicate and serious). From this point on, the narration switches back and forth between May and Friedel, which is cool—they’re both sympathetic and the extra point of view is helpful—but occasionally confusing: it once took me several pages to realize Fothergill had switched narrators.
There’s stuff about May getting involved in the Elberthal musical community—not enough of it, because that was my super predictable favorite thing—plus more Sir Peter being awful, a great deal of pining, some exciting weather, and a healthy dose of family drama. Fothergill is really good at giving you a certain kind of Victorian emotional intensity without going overboard, and her characters are rounded and sympathetic—more than she means them to be, I think.
Take Anna Sartorius, a young woman at May’s boarding house. She hasn’t got the best manners, but she’s kind to May from the beginning, going out of her way to help her adjust to Germany and Elberthal. May—shy, sweet May—doesn’t like her, and makes that so clear that Anna eventually gives up on her. Fothergill presents that as an unwise choice, and shows how Anna’s off-putting behavior is a direct result of her frustration with her position as a woman, but she also presents May’s dislike as a sympathetic trait.
Overall, I kind of loved this book. Not with a wildly enthusiastic love, but with a lot of warmth. The First Violin is full of musical thrills and dramatic renunciations, but it’s also always a little more human than you expect, and that’s not the highest compliment I can pay a book, but it might be the fondest.