Prima Donna is the story of 19th-century opera singer Sabine Conrad and how she went from stardom in New York City to life in rough-and-tumble Seattle as Marguerite Olson, a bar girl with a scar on her face. Chance alternates Marguerite’s world-weary narration of her hardscrabble life in Seattle with excerpts from Sabine’s journal, filled with artless chatter about her growing fame as well as her growing attraction to her sister’s boyfriend, another member of the company. How Sabine transforms into Marguerite propels the story.
Although an opera singer’s life may seem glamorous, in reality Sabine has to jockey for position within the company while her lover subtly pimps her out to wealthy patrons. One such encounter goes badly, and Sabine reemerges as Marguerite in Seattle. Her new identity is threatened when a figure from her past life finds her, tempting her with the music she loves so much.
Much of what makes this book so compelling is discovering how Sabine became Marguerite (taken from Faust, a nod to her old life), as both personas are fascinating in their own way. The book almost begs to be read in one sitting, and Chance had me right until the end, when the final act undermines the gritty realism that precedes it. Nevertheless, an absorbing read.