This is an intimate deep-dive into the thoughts of the composer Alma Schindler Mahler during her marriage to Gustav Mahler. Her upbringing in Belle Époque Vienna was intellectually and artistically privileged, but her choice to give up composing to support her celebrated husband’s career creates numerous opportunities for conflict and drama. Her up-and-down cycles of elation and depression, however, soon weary the reader, because Alma’s reactions are so oppressively self-centered, giving Sharratt few chances to bring to life any of the artistic geniuses with whom Alma interacts.
The one exception is the brash American musicologist Natalie Curtis, who offers Alma a glimpse into the possibilities the new century and the New World offer an independent artist-scholar—but her scenes are all too brief. Instead, readers get more description than they probably need of Alma’s many erotic obsessions and disappointments.
For fans of the setting, however, Sharratt’s considerable skill with descriptions of gorgeous Alpine countryside and the equally sumptuous social and musical soirées may be enough. The novel actually becomes more compelling as Alma’s social circle widens, and I found myself wishing that Sharratt would extend the narrative into the much more interesting second half of Schindler Mahler’s life, when she breaks free from the bourgeois constrictions of her life as Mahler’s muse and forges an identity for herself as arts patron, composer, and feminist.