JOINT REVIEW: Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell
Every family has its secrets…
When Gail Rostall is invited to her good friend Oliver Bannister’s family home, she has no idea he was one of the Bannisters – the most distinguished musical family in the country. Nor had she any idea that Oliver’s brother was the famous composer Marcus Bannister.
An ambitious, young singer herself, Gail finds it difficult to convince the frosty Marc that she had not come along simply with the idea to further her career. In fact, before long her feelings for him become anything but professional!
With the role of a contralto heroine up for grabs in Marc’s new opera, Gail soon finds herself at the source of family friction. And it suddenly occurs to Gail that she is being asked to keep too many family secrets for the celebrated Bannisters.
As auditions loom around the corner, just how will Gail manage to uphold family harmony without jeopardizing her own career…?
Jayne: Sunita got me started reading Mary Burchell, way back when, after loaning me some her favorites of Burchell’s books. I will admit to being slightly envious of her complete set of paperback copies. Anyway, I’m reading all but the initial book in the Warrender Saga for the first time and wondered how they would hold up on reread for those already familiar with them. Sunita kindly agreed to revisit the latest ones which Endeavour Publishing is reissuing. I’m the one who messed up and started book 6 ahead of book 5 but it didn’t turn out to cause any issues for me.
Sunita: I still remember mailing those paperbacks to you, Jayne. You had discovered Burchell, I think through her autobiography, and written a lovely review. I was so thrilled that one of my favorite romance authors was being introduced to a contemporary audience. I would have sent you my entire collection!
Jayne: Is Burchell finally moving away from secretary heroines in this book? And I noticed that there’s not really any other potential “hero” worked into the story. It’s pretty clear that Oliver is just a friend.
Sunita: She definitely keeps writing secretaries but she branches out to other types, which I really appreciate.
Jayne: A serious musical heroine – opera of course – and a contralto! Me lurves contralto voices. According to her teacher, Gail has that rare “brown velvet” type of contralto. Very rare with, of course, few parts to showcase it. Gail’s voice isn’t earth shattering but it’s good.
Sunita: I love that Gail is serious about her career and ambitious. It sets up the kind of conflict for the heroine that we don’t often get: she has ethics and cares about behaving ethically, but she also wants to seize opportunities when they’re available. She talks herself into seeing the best in Quentin even though she knows, as an artist, how important it is for Marcus to be able to fulfill his vision. It is a real tension within her in the first half.
Jayne: Definite mutual love over that! This book was written in the late 60s? So maybe that’s why Burchell was moving past “every heroine a secretary, even if she has other talents,” phase. And to go along with her being serious about her career, it looks as if she will continue it past marriage unlike Tessa, the heroine in book The Broken Wing, who seemed poised to get married and give it all up.
The conflict is entered into very quickly. Gail’s friend’s brother is a composer who has just written a new opera with – you guessed it – a contralto heroine. His dry politeness and curt responses after learning of Gail’s voice tell her Volumes. Good for Gail that she feels Marc a bit conceited to be so sure she’s heard of his new opera and immediately conclude that she’s a scheming career ladder climber out to use him. She’s not disingenuous enough to completely put this opportunity to talk with the composer of a potentially major new work to waste. She puts Marc back on his heels when he tries to get snippy with her and – brava! – exits on a wonderful put down “last word” towards him. Gail isn’t quite the timid mouse, is she?
Sunita: I loved that scene on the stairs.
Jayne: Yes, she puts Marc in his place. And now I know what plangent means.
Sunita: LOL. I had to look it up again.
Jayne: As if the identity of the hero wasn’t already clear, Burchell tosses in the significance of Marc buying Gail the little porcelain Cupid fitting arrows to his bow.
Sunita: Yes. Burchell shows us that (a) he is attracted to her; and (b) he feels badly about how he treated her. Rather than a word-grove, he buys her a cupid.
Jayne: The story is full of lovely bits about Gail learning the role for the opera. Not just – she practiced and learned the part but HOW one goes about it: the phrasing, the intonation, the right emphasis, how to convey more than just the lyrics.
Sunita: This installment recalls A Song Begins in showing us the nuts and bolts of the artist’s life. The part where she describes how Gail slowly learns not just the music but how to convey what the music means is something we rarely see, and certainly not in shorter wordcount books.
Jayne: Absolutely. Burchell is wonderful at that. Another significant moment is the exchange between Gail and her teacher who calls Gail a “Happy English Child” to not have known the pathos that her music teacher had. It’s a call back to Burchell’s first-hand knowledge of what the European Jews had fled or suffered during the war. We also get to see creative end from composer’s POV. Burchell shows all sides of the musical process.
Sunita: Madame Marburger is a terrific example of how Burchell is able to convey a lot of characterization in a brief space. And so is Tom, Oliver’s partner. He and Oliver are just as dedicated to their craft as Marcus is, even though theirs is considered “light” and less important to Oliver’s family. It takes a lot of talent and skill to pull off musical theater.
Jayne: I loved seeing Oliver and Tom being successful even if Bannister Sr. might condescend to them a little. But then he can’t compose so he’s not all that and a bag of chips like he’d love to be.
Gail has too much character and integrity to not feel guilty over her deception in her preparation, with Marc’s father, for the opera part. But she’s also human and this is a role and situation that could launch her career. Maybe not as a prima donna but, as she herself says, perhaps towards the top of the tree. But then, oh, the Grand Gesture Gail makes … not for her but for Marc. And Oscar Warrender once again proves that he’s not quite the hardnosed badass most people view him as.
Sunita: That grand gesture is one of my favorite moments in my romance reading. She does it for Marcus, sure, in a traditional heroine grand gesture, but she also does it because what she does will do the opera justice. And because she couldn’t live with herself as an artist if she didn’t.
Jayne: Yes, yes. Gail is above all an artist and as we’ve already seen, dedicated to her profession.
If anything, Gail profits from her selflessness with her gained experience in Germany and new and slightly vitriolic attitude. She takes no shit and sings beautifully. I like that Burchell gives Gail her moment of knowing that she did the right thing in standing down from taking the role.
Marc is definitely not of the “shoot him now” mold of Burchell hero. He’s temperamental but it’s because of his genius and the way he was romantically hurt by another singer in the past. His romantic confession is delightful.
This is the first one of the series I’ve read out of order and I did fine. Readers can just jump in.
Sunita: This is definitely one where you don’t need the previous installments. The other aspect I really love in this story is the father-son rivalry. You feel for both Marcus and Quentin, because they clearly love and respect each other, but Quentin can’t help but be jealous. Marcus can do the one thing he can’t, as Oliver points out, and he can’t quite give up being the center of the Bannister world at the same time that he’s genuinely proud of Marcus. And Marcus is going to see his vision through even though it pains him to be at odds with his father.
This book is absolutely a romance, but it’s also a family story, and it’s about the transcendent nature of art in all its forms.
Jayne: Absolutely with the father-son aspect of the plot. It gives us so much insight into Marc’s character which, since we don’t otherwise see his POV, helps to showcase him.
I’m feeling like a broken record with my grades but so far I just love Burchell’s way of writing. This one is a B for me.
How did the book hold up for you and how would you grade it?
Sunita: I have to give this a straight A grade. I’m sure there are plenty of flaws, but it has held up for me over so many years, and rereading it this time was as satisfying as ever.