[16 July 2014]
As a music writer for PopMatters, I’ve seen a lot of artists and bands come and go. I sometimes wonder what happened to a few of them. Did life just get in the way? Was the promise of a full-time job that actually paid the bills too tempting to resist? Or did they realize that they might not have enough talent to really make it, and decided to do something else?
Well, Kate Racculia’s sophomore novel, Bellweather Rhapsody takes that train of thought and runs with it. The novel is basically an examination of the lives of musicians, and how and why certain musicians might find success, while others don’t.
Set in a dilapidated hotel in the Catskills of New York State during a weekend, statewide, high school music festival, Bellweather Rhapsody examines the lives of young musicians who are at a crossroads in their career. Statewide, as the festival is called, is really a showcase of talent for scouts who will give some of the students a college scholarship and prestige, enabling these musicians to have their professional careers take off. Some, though, will be left behind.
Racculia chillingly writes about the intense competition and pressure that these young musicians are under: “Music was something to win, to be first and best at.” Later, a character is told the following by a cruel music teacher:
Your best years are behind you, kiddo… That’s the way it is. Sure, you’ll go on, you’ll go to school. You’ll learn how to write and how to teach music, and you’ll probably teach but you won’t write, and you certainly won’t compose anything worth remembering. Then you’ll marry someone and have children and you’ll say you played piano once but you won’t have sat down at yours in years. You’ll get rid of it. You’ll sell it, and you won’t be happy, but you won’t quite be able to put your finger on why. I’ll tell you why. Because that’s the way it is, Natalie. That’s life when you’re nothing special. And I’ll tell you something else. This is a much easier lesson to learn when you’re 18 instead of 40.
However, Bellweather Rapsody is much more than just a meditation on life in the arts. It is, in fact, a murder mystery and something of a ghost story. The novel is set in November 1997, on the 15th anniversary of a murder-suicide where a young bride killed her groom and then hanged herself. History repeats itself when a 14-year-old female flute prodigy is found by her roommate, hanged in her room. But when the roommate comes back after seeking help, the body is gone and all that’s left behind is a note written in block capital letters: “NOW SHE IS MINE.” Thus sets the stage for a sort of whodunit.
The only problem is that most of the main characters don’t seem to care that a young girl may have been murdered and think it’s all an elaborate prank, including the girl’s mother. But to add fuel to this setting, a raging blizzard traps the inhabitants of the hotel, though this seems like a minor detail, knowing full well that nobody would probably be fleeing the place during the course of that weekend, because doing so would be passing up an opportunity at fame and fortune.
What makes this novel interesting is that it is peppered with a cast of characters who are still living in the past, or are afraid of the future. There’s the aforementioned Natalie Wink WIlson, who was a former piano student of one of the characters and is now a chaperone, and is haunted by the fact that she recently killed someone – someone she knew – who had broken into her house.
There’s Minnie Graves, who witnessed the murder-suicide as a 12-year-old girl and is revisiting the hotel on the gruesome anniversary so she can conquer the trauma that viewing such an act had on her. There’s Fisher Brodie, a conductor and a former child piano prodigy who destroyed one of his hands in an effort to escape from the feeling of being trapped as a young musician shuttled around from place to place by parents who cared too much about what his talent could do for them, and not him.
And there’s Harold Hastings, the hotel’s concierge, who’s got a few personal demons of his own. As far as those afraid of what’s to come, there’s Alice Hatmaker, a young singer who’s afraid of life without her twin brother, Bertram – nicknamed “Rabbit”, in a nod to Updike, when he goes off to college. Rabbit, in turn, is gay but hasn’t come out of the closet to anyone yet, and he appears to be afraid of the reprisals once his secret is known.
However, Bellweather Rhapsody is also a novel that is loaded with pop culture references, right down to the obvious one: people make reference to the Bellweather as the sort of hotel that could have been the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. The opening chapters are loaded with everything from nods to Weezer’s Pinkerton album to TV’s The X-Files to, of course, scores of classical musicians. The book’s very title is similar to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which, naturally, gets sung during the course of the novel. The Smashing Pumpkins get referenced. A Whitney Houston song plays a somewhat pivotal role in the plot. The Bangles even make an appearance, though not in the flesh.
Where the novel strikes a somewhat dissonant note is that it’s fairly tough to get into, as most of the characters are either wishy-washy or are stunning sociopaths. One holds up a convenience store with a handgun just to steal a few cupcakes for fun. Another kidnaps and ties up another character to a chair, rendering this individual immediately unlikable when they are supposed to be liked and supported by the reader. Yet another, Viola Fabian, the mother of the missing and presumed to be deceased flautist, is such a backstabber that every time she appears, you may want to rip the pages out and continue on without her – so pure evil and the same chord plucked is she.
Still, Bellweather Rhapsody is an entertaining and enthralling yarn, and the ending is strong and somewhat sentimental, even if the biggest mystery is the fact that we never learn what happens to these bright young stars, what their future destinies might hold, and if they become renowned and famous at their craft. The novel churns along as a half-breed between the character observations of a Stephen King with the cozy mystery feel of an Agatha Christie detective story. By the end, this novel lingers, even if it might be a little hard to take at times.
This is the stuff that dreams and nightmares are made of: what one is willing to go through – or not go through – when you’re infused with a dazzling talent. Or, as Canadian power rock band Rush put it best, as it could be the personal motto of just about any young character struggling to be heard in Bellweather Rhapsody: “We will pay the price / But we will not count the cost.”