Pros: fascinating look at an obscure part of musical history
Cons: probably more sex than most would ever expect
Interspersed with the well-known Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches stories, Anne Rice wrote some stand-alone novels, the best of which, in my opinion is Cry to Heaven, published in 1982.
::: The Castrati :::
During the Baroque period, when the Catholic Church forbade women from performing, the stars of the Church choirs and opera stages were the castrati, men who had been castrated in order to preserve the pure soprano voices that left with the onset of puberty. As Cry to Heaven begins, we meet one such castrato, Guido, who was sold by his poor family and castrated at the age of six. He studied in Naples, and showed all signs of becoming a huge success, until the time when he would have hit puberty, and, as was the case with some castrati, lost his voice. Guido buries his frustration in a quest to succeed as a maestro, a teacher of other voices, and a composer. But he knows that it will be years before he ever gets a student who will be good enough to get him the attention necessary to get other good students, and to have his compositions heard, so he goes out from the conservatorio to seek other voices in Italy he might train.
At the same time, Tonio Treschi is being raised by his young, eccentric mother. A former student at the Pieta, she was a singer herself before she married Tonio's father, and instills in the young boy her love of music. Tonio first meets a castrato when he goes into the choir loft at Church and begins to sing. Tonio's father, the last member of one of the leading Houses of Venice, has given Tonio a great sense of duty to the House of Treschi. In Venitian society, only one son is permitted to marry, and Tonio's older brothers died, along with his father's first wife, and Tonio is the only chance the family has of surviving.
As Tonio gets older, he hears rumors of a brother who did not die, and soon learns that he had a brother, Carlo, who was banished from Venice for disobeying his father and dishonoring the family. Tonio's father, knowing that he won't live to see the boy married, tells Tonio that his brother will return, and that he must save the family and not submit to his brother, who has been replaced as the heir by Tonio. Of course, leaving a boy to fight a man never works, and Tonio soon learns the full truth of the situation: Carlo had taken his mother from the music school, impregnated her, and was then banished. His father married the young girl and raised the bastard (Tonio) as his own. He returns to reclaim his positions as heir as well as his woman, and when Guido is brought to hear Tonio sing by one of Tonio's confused tutors, he seizes his opportunity, has Tonio castrated, and claims his brother did it because he wanted to continue to sing.
Guido, a mere pawn in Carlo's plans, takes Tonio back to the conservatorio with him, and Tonio's life as a eunuch begins. He spends the next several years learning to live with his fate, working on his music, and moving toward what hopes to be a very successful career in opera, all the while plotting to avenge his fate without bringing ruin to the House of Treschi.
::: More Sex and Music Than a 70s Disco :::
Rice obviously did her research, as her descriptions of everything from the clothing of the Venetian nobility to the music create such a realistic feel that you imagine that you are in the story with the characters. When I was re-reading Cry to Heaven I had a very hard time coming back to the reality of television and computers and bubble-gum pop sung by screeching adolescents.
In addition to the extensive research, Rice does an incredible job building characters. You feel every bit of Tonio's deep-seated responsibility to his family, his desire to preserve the family even at his own expense after his castration, and the pull of two worlds: avenging his mutilation versus enjoying the life he has created as a castrato and the people he has met in Neopolitan society. The very richness of the characters draws the reader into a story that isn't particularly fast-moving or action-packed, but is captivating nonetheless.
The one and only thing that might be off-putting to some readers is the amount of sex that takes place in Cry to Heaven. One would think that the fact that the story is about eunuchs would result in a Rice book with no sex, but this is an author who has never been afraid to write a good sex scene. The only possible historical license she has taken might be the sheer amount of sex the castrati had: with each other, with the society they entertain, and in one case, with a Catholic Cardinal. While the scenes aren't overly graphic, the castrati apparently had sex with every man, woman, and eunuch in their paths, and I did find that a bit of a stretch in terms of historical accuracy. Within the story, however, it wasn't merely gratuitous on Rice's part, but did actually serve to further define the characters and their relationships with each other.
Overall, Rice has crafted a masterpiece steeped in a part of history about which very little as known. In her acknowledgments, she gives thanks for the chance to hear the one and only recording of a castrato ever made, that of the last one to sing in the Vatican. The book is a fascinating tribute to this period of musical history, and should not be missed.
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Other Anne Rice reviews:
Beauty's Punishment • Blood Canticle • The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty • Interview with the Vampire