After I wrote this post, in which I raved about the nonfiction book Apollo's Angels, I was contacted by a small publisher, Pale Fire Press, regarding one of their current releases, You, Fascinating You. Since an historical fiction novel that touches on the world of ballet holds an obvious appeal for me, I eagerly accepted their gracious offer to send me a copy.
At the core of this novel is the true story of Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf. Frustrated by the limited opportunities for her in Hungary, she and a few fellow dancers cast their lot in with an Italian man named Buffarino, an "impresario" who claims to have connections that will get them positions as ballerinas at La Scala opera house in Milan. Buffarino is more huckster than anything else, and Margit finds herself performing in a circuit of touring variety shows instead of pursuing the classical ballet career of her dreams. On these tours, she encounters Maestro Pasquale Frustaci, the womanizing composer for several Italian pop standards of the day, including one called "Tu, Solamente Tu" (which translated into "You, Fascinating You and was recorded by Glenn Miller in the U.S.). Margit and Pasquale end up marrying and having a son together, but are soon split up when an escalation in Italy's involvement in WWII traps Margit and her son in Hungary with her Jewish family while Pasquale remains in Italy. The novel wasn't quite as ballet-centric as I thought it would be. There were certainly a few references to things that I had a little extra insight into thanks to Apollo's Angels, but I actually found myself reminded more of another recent read, The Balkan Trilogy. Like Manning's novels, You, Fascinating You is filled with a sense of tension that results from characters being forced to wait for the course of the war to determine their fate. This is especially true during the middle part of the novel, when Margit's observance of the war is similar to that of someone watching events unfold on a stage without fully accepting that she herself will be pulled into the action. She ultimately must face this in a harsh way when she returns to her family in Hungary and is swept up in the many atrocities the Germans committed against the Jews there.
If there's one thing I wish the novel had done better, it would be to have more fully explored and exposed the inner workings of the relationship between Margit and Pasquale. We're told that she loves him and is drawn to him in spite of the many misgivings of her friends, but didn't see enough to explain why this is. I never warmed up to Pasquale as a character and and found myself firmly in camp with the friends who warned Margit against him. I would have liked to have seen some more moments that showed Pasquale through Margit's eyes. By seeing more of the good that she saw in him, I probably would have been more invested in rooting for their reunion in the latter half of the novel. On the other hand, if I had to name one thing that I think the novel did really well, it would be the ending. I wouldn't go as far as calling it a surprise ending, but Margit's circumstances at the end are revealed in such a way as to give the preceding story a frame that I hadn't expected and that was unexpectedly touching.