I wanted this book by Lucy Robinson to start in a different place. The story is about Sally Howlett, wardrobe mistress at the Royal Opera House, who sings opera… in the wardrobe. There are so many good things about this book that make it a pleasurable read, but throughout I had the nagging doubt that there was a different book trying to get out. A book better than the prologue, or ‘Overture’ as it is called to match the opera theme, a book better than the cover, a book seriously about opera and more concerned with life’s big themes. Instead it seemed trapped inside its rather lightweight cover.
The Overture starts with a person trapped in a wardrobe with a teddy bear called Carrot. This person is Sally Howlett, who the next day starts a post-graduate diploma in opera at the Royal College of Music. I don’t always have a problem with Prologues –although I know there is a view that it demonstrates nervousness on the part of the writer and a need to explain stuff ‘up front’ – but I did have a problem with this one. It was confusing. In the first paragraph, the person looks in the mirror and sees a ‘boggle’, a boggle which has spent most of the day in a wardrobe with a teddy bear. How old is this person? My instant reaction was that the story was starting when the hero was a child. I was wrong. Second, there was too much exposition. There’s an unexpected visitor who we are told will change Sally’s life but who I thought was ballet dancer Barry, but Barry lives with Sally. She mentions a friend, Bea, and starts to write an e-mail; but not to Bea, to her cousin Fiona. It felt in need of a strong editor’s hand. Despite my irritation and confusion I kept reading, lured by the opera storyline.
For me the story starts at Chapter 1 with the child Sally who grows up on a council estate in Stourbridge, decidedly not a centre of opera appreciation. Playing on the radio she hears an aria from Madame Butterfly and is entranced. It is the beginning of a lifelong obsession which leads to her not singing opera at the Royal Opera House but working there as a wardrobe mistress. The story of Sally’s life story is told by weaving together the strands of her childhood with her emotionally-repressed family, her life as a wardrobe mistress, a short visit to New York to work costumes for a production at The Met, and now as Sally begins to study opera.
What I found strange was the chick-lit language, girl-about-town bad language – talking about poo and farts like a six-year-old – in combination with the opera strand. I apologise if I am making unfair generalisations.
What kept me reading? The storyline, I wanted to know what happened in New York to make Sally study opera at the RCM when she couldn’t get beyond singing in the wardrobe. The ending did seem inevitable, I thought I guessed the reason but I was wrong.
What were the bigger themes trying to get out? A few life lessons. That helping others is all well and good, but you must do things for yourself and not simply to please someone else. That family loyalty is important, but you also owe a duty to yourself. To never give up. And finally, Sally learns that it is not just her that struggles for self-belief, everyone does. When she understands this, she becomes an adult and an opera singer.
Please don’t let this review put you off, this is a page-turning read for your summer holiday suitcase. I worry that it could have been more. Follow Lucy Robinson [above] on Twitter @lucy_robinson or Facebook.
Watch an interview with Lucy on You Tube here.
‘The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me’ by Lucy Robinson [UK: Penguin] Buy now
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