Book Review: The Wonder Singer, by George Rabasa

According to writer Mark Lockwood, there’s no shame in being called a hack, a hired gun. They get the job done, he says. But his ability to churn out product is not what drives world-renowned opera singer Merce Casals to choose him as the ghostwriter of her memoirs. “He listens,” she explains simply. And in George Rabasa’s The Wonder Singer, Lockwood does listen, intently at first, to the diva weave her tale. But when his elderly muse dies suddenly, Lockwood becomes obsessed with listening to their recorded interviews night and day in an effort to finish her memoirs and do justice to her life story.

Lockwood is not the only one vying to tell the diva’s story, though. A top publishing agent and a famous author are on Lockwood’s tail, aiming to retrieve the tapes and notes. This literary tug-of-war provides for some comical scenes as the writers try to outdo each other in digging for answers and mining Casals’ contacts and relations (in one scene, Lockwood’s rival even plucks some hair from the singer while she lies at rest in her coffin…later he submits it for DNA analysis, hoping it will offer an interesting twist to his manuscript).

Joining Lockwood in his race to finish the book are Casals’ former nurse, Perla, and a scarily-accurate Casals imitator named Orson. Casals husband, Nolan – placed in an assisted care facility by Merce years ago – even joins in on the caper. Not everyone is willing to play Lockwood’s game, though. His wife, Claire, grows impatient with his obsession and his resulting distance from her (made only wider by Lockwood’s foolish flirtations with Perla).

My favorite part of The Wonder Singer was how well the author brought his characters to life. I could hear them, I could see them, I believed them. That doesn’t mean I always liked them, which is even more impressive that the author made me care. I didn’t like that none of the married characters seemed capable of being 100% loyal to their spouses. I was annoyed at how Lockwood became increasingly pathetic in his obsession with writing Casals’ story. Perla seemed like a tease and a mooch. Orson was just…well…there for the ride, I guess. Nolan was hornery, though charming. And Casals herself could certainly behave like the diva everyone assumed she was. BUT…I still cared about each of them. I enjoyed them through all their flaws and foibles.

I also think author Rabasa did a fantastic job knitting Casals memoirs – the story within the story here, the real “Wonder Singer” – into Lockwood’s adventure. The sincerity of her life history helped to balance the off-kilter endeavors of Lockwood to bring her story to the people.

The Wonder Singer was unlike anything I had read recently, and I really enjoyed the trip.

Thank you, thank you to Caitlin at Unbridled Books for this review copy!

Book details:

Publisher: Unbridled Books
Format: Hardcover Book
Publish Date: 09/30/08
Pages: 336