Rating: 4 stars
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Mike McPhee and his partner were young and in love with a bright, long future ahead of them. So when Mike’s lover suggested that they adopt a child, Mike agreed, thinking it would be years before a child was found. But a young girl gave them her baby to adopt and soon they were a family. However, their happiness was short lived as a gunshot took Mike’s lover away from him and made him a single dad. Now years later Mike is still grieving, his happiness and life centered around his remarkable daughter Emma. Emma wants to be an opera singer and is incredibly gifted. She wants to be admitted to the renowned Giovanni Boca’s opera workshop at the Collective Olcott Music School, a prestigious institution in New York City. And Mike wants to make that happen, even if he has to go into debt to do it.
Giovanni Boca was already an opera legend when a vocal chord injury abruptly ended his career during his performance of Nessum Dorma. And while he has continued on as a much sought after vocal teacher and consultant, he has continued to mourn the loss of his voice and his career as an opera singer. When young Emma auditions for his workshop, Giovanni finds not only a once in a lifetime talent, but an attraction to the child’s father as well.
Both Mike and Gio understand what it is to lose the most important thing in their life and find themselves drawn to each other. But life has a way of throwing hurdles in the path of true love, and for Mike and Gio, that includes Mike’s insecurities about their differences in status, income, and way of life. Gio has other obstacles that mar their way to happiness, including a stage mother that will stop at nothing to see that her daughter succeeds, even if that means hurting Emma in the process.
The Stars That Tremble has so many lovely elements to its story that it can be appreciated on multiple levels. The first element that drew me to this story is the inclusion of music. I happen to love music and opera so to be given a story where that is a key element makes me almost giddy with happiness, especially when it contains references to many of my favorite operas. Whether Gio is talking about a recording of June Anderson singing from Die Zauberflöte or the author is using different musical movements to describe Gio and Mike’s lovemaking, it is clear that the author is not only familiar with the world of opera and musical schools, but has a deep love for them as well. Here is a small excerpt:
GIO talked while he plugged his MP3 player into the speakers. “I had a voice coach when I was living in Milan who thought the best way to inspire his singers was to scare the living hell out of them. So now I will do that to you.”
Twelve teenagers sat rapt on the studio floor, staring at Gio. He found “Der Hölle Rache” in the list of songs. “This is June Anderson singing from Die Zauberflöte.” He hit play. “It is famously referred to as the Queen of the Night’s aria, although she sings another earlier in the opera that is nearly as good. Here, she is singing, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils my heart.’ She is not having such a good time, eh? And Mozart is about to put her through hell vocally too. Listen.”
It was clear from their expressions that a few of the girls knew this aria. Emma McPhee certainly did. The girls who didn’t blanched when the singer got to the run pattern between the verses.
“This,” Gio said when the aria finished, “is coloratura. Literally, it means coloring, but in the context of an opera, it means to add these vocal flourishes. They are beautiful but extraordinarily difficult to sing.” He smiled, trying not to freak the kids out too much. “That is, coloratura was often added to songs in the bel canto tradition. Can any of you think of other examples?”
About half the class was with it. Emma cited Rossini, the obvious example. Marie pulled out an obscure Mozart piece, which allowed Gio to freak the class out more by pointing out that this particular part was written for a castrato. Most of the boys winced at that. Greg knew “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” from Handel’s Messiah was a coloratura tenor aria.
“Good,” Gio said. “Now I will blow your minds some more. This one is from “Nixon in China.”
What a terrific example of teaching! The wording is concise, his meaning clear. I loved this, although I have to admit “Nixon in China” sent me running to Google.
I loved the characters too. Mike McPhee is a wonderful blue collar man who lives outside the normal stereotype. He is compassionate, steady, intelligent, and warmhearted. A man clearly in love with his daughter while still mourning the love of his life. Mike put his personal life on hold the day his partner died, making Emma’s happiness and well being his sole goal in life. Just as easy to connect with is Giovanni, a legendary opera singer who tragically can no longer sing. Passionate, throughly Italian, cultured, Gio too rises above the almost expected snobbery to come across as a lovely, open hearted, nonjudgmental human being. Emma completes the triad of main characters, as it should be as Mike pivots around her and her future while disregarding his own.
If you have been around children of this age and talent or have them yourself then Emma is easily recognizable as that terrific kid who is self centered (in that way of children everywhere), concerned with her hopes and dreams while leapfrogging over those of her father. Kids of any age like their status quo no matter what they may say differently and Emma is that child. She is young, talented, and been the center of her dad’s life all her years, so having that change in many ways is difficult. I understood her even when I didn’t like all her very human reactions to her father’s and Gio’s burgeoning relationship.
There were parts where the narrative slowed down a bit or a transition in POV was a little uneven, but this story sings. It is full of love, and romance, and of course, some of the most memorable music you have ever heard. Run, don’t walk to add this to your bookshelf! Consider this lovely story recommended!
Cover art by Aaron Anderson. I found the cover a little murky in color but the music in the background is lovely.