Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland where the horrors of the Second World War seem distant. He adores his mother, but she treats him with bitter severity, disapproving especially of his intense friendship with Anton, the Jewish boy at school. A gifted pianist, Anton is tortured by stage fright; only in secret games with Gustav does his imagination thrive.
But Gustav is taught that he must develop a hard shell, 'like a coconut', to protect the softness inside - just like the hard shell perfected by his country to protect its neutrality. But despite this hard shell, nothing in Gustav's life can be called neutral. Older and increasingly curious about his absent father, Gustav discovers the traces of an erotic love affair - traces which still glow white-hot even now.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender and spanning the 20th century, Rose Tremain's beautifully orchestrated novel explores the big themes of betrayal and the struggle for happiness and, above all, the passionate love of a childhood friendship as it is tested over a lifetime.
©2016 Rose Tremain (P)2016 Audible, Ltd
Writer and audiobook reviewer.
This is Rose Tremain at her very best - The Gustav Sonata is superb. The whole novel spans the twentieth century up into the present day in neutral Switzerland, each sentence beautifully honed, and each section of the past and present interwoven like the movements of a sonata.
Just after WW2 Gustav and Anton first meet as 5 year-olds when Gustav who lives with his widowed, embittered and unloving mother helps Anton to stop crying. Each child has a prodigious talent: Anton at the piano and Gustav for caring for others as he seeks the love his mother had denied him. Their intense friendship forged in their curious and powerful games acted out in an old sanatorium will endure, despite all, though to their old age. There are things that Gustav does not understand. Why is his mother so hostile to Jews such as Anton's parents? What really happened to his father whom he never knew? Why can't his mother Emilie cuddle him? Why is it so important to be part of neutral Switzerland?
It is in the central 'movement' that these questions are answered as Emilie's marriage to Gustav's father Erik is described. Sexually charged at the outset, it dissolved into recrimination after Emilie miscarries the first baby Gustav and Erik seeks solace elsewhere. When Erik loses his position after falsifying papers to allow Jews to remain in Switzerland, their lives fall even further apart. This is just the barest outline, the whole is a myriad ramifications, passions and incidents delicately threaded together in language which has its own musicality.
The final 'movement' sees Gustav and Anton grown up. Anton never made it as a concert pianist because he couldn't cope with the 'snarling tiger' of the audience, but has snatched at the opportunity of recording music offered by someone who recognises his talent. He has left the small Swiss town where he grew up, and Gustav is bereft. Gustav is middle aged and his talent for caring for others is served in his running a hotel and making his guests and employees comfortable. During this section, the story changes key once more as Anton's life splinters, and all its many, many narrative strands are plaited together, and the final moments are made into a touching resolution.
I gave the narration a 4 rather than a 5 because I felt it was uneven, better later on than during the first part. To begin with Mark Meadows the narrator attempted a suggestion of a quasi-childish cadence to represent the boys which marred Rose Tremain's fine writing, and after that he never seemed to have been entirely sure of his narrative voice.
There is far, far more in The Gustav Sonata than I can touch on. To appreciate its fullness, you must listen to it. Do - it's wonderful!
Rose Tremain was never a fast starter and I admit I struggled a little at the start, but as a writer she has earned my trust many times over and of course I stuck with it.
And her slow moving story stealthily grows in scope and reach and in depth. It seems to me that she brings now the skill of a short story writer to her characters, painting the essence of whole lives with deft and spare strokes. It centers around Gustav, but all the folk around him live and breath are with me now long after I have finished the story. This is what fiction is for.
The book started off really well. About halfway through, I felt bored and wanted it to finish. I persevered to the end, hoping for something interesting to happen, but I was disappointed. it was dull and predictable. I didn't like the narrator. I thought that some of the voices he used were ridiculous. I thought his performance was disjointed, as though he wasn't interested in the story and just reading from a page. Not recommended!
I have read everything rose remain has written but I had to give up on this novel. It was a relentlessly grim tale of a boy and his mother with not one chink of light or hope in the story. I accept some people's lives are grim but surely they have moments of happiness. Every time gustav has a happy moment he is knocked over by a tide of miserable events. Miserable reading.
Bookworm, librarian, chocaholic. Give me a good book, a bar of chocolate and a glass of fine wine and I'm a happy lady.
Love, friendship, betrayal.
There wasn't one character I disliked in this story but Gustav was the stand-out one for me. From childhood to the last he was true to himself and steadfast in his love and friendship for his boyhood friend Anton and the latter's family.
Definitely, yes! I managed to listen to it in four or five big chunks but each time I had to turn it off I couldn't wait to get back to the story.
This is one of my favourite audiobooks of 2016. Rose Tremain writes with such style and empathy for her characters, which results (for me) in total immersion in the story. The plot is both heart-breaking and heart-warming and the cast of characters are well fleshed-out. Every sentence adds to the truth and charm of the story. The final sentence is fantastic IMHO. Some readers may find the final chapter a little sentimental/cloying, perhaps, but I found it immensely satisfying. I always love a story where the plotlines are neatly tied up!
Little or no depth to any one of these characters. Always felt on the edge of finding out something important but it just never came.
This was a simplistic tale....Tremain just didn't give enough to make you care or feel familiar with any one. It was telling a whimsical story as a series of events which were linked and relevant but were not thorough enough or developed enough to help you engage.
He did the best he could with the material.
Felt really dissatisfied with this purchase
Rose tremain is a wonderful author who brings the soul of her sympathtic characters to the fore and interweaves them into stories that are interesting and plausible.
Unfortunately, I found Mark Meadows narration irritating and distracting with an upward inflection every 2 or 3 words.
I have read a number of Rose Tremain's books and usually found them excellent or at least very good. However, this novel, is neither of those things. I found it hard to empathise with any of the main characters, and I found the plot somewhat predictable. None of this was helped by the very basic narration. Other than his own natural voice, the narrator's only other character voices sounded like children, or Neil, the hippy, from the young ones.
Great narration and voices. Gentle pace. Thoroughly enjoyable and well written. Lacking obvious structure, just a story of life.
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