The Phantom of Manhattan
by Frederick Forsyth
(St Martins Press, $19.95) ISBN 0312246560
**
Weighing in at a slim 192 pages, The Phantom of Manhattan will probably attract many readers due to its title and its connection with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. We're told that Forsyth and his friend Webber considered the what ifs. What if the Phantom didn't die at the end? What if he lived, prospered and still felt unrequited love for Christine?

What ifs can be intriguing. Finding out what happened to some famous fictional characters just whets our literary curiosity. The list could be endless: Darcy and Elizabeth, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, Valjean and Fantine, Tarzan and Jane. However, a potential problem with sequels arises when they're done by someone other than the original author. Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, did not come close to recreating the original passion. Wide Sargasso Sea tells us the history of the mysterious first Mrs. Rochester, but are we prepared to accept a less than flattering portrait of Mr. Rochester? My choice as the worst attempt at a sequel is the wretched Mrs. De Winter, the sequel to Rebecca. Many may question my choice and instead substitute The Phantom of Manhattan as the worst sequel.

My only experience with The Phantom of the Opera is Webber's stunning musical. I've never read Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, first published in 1911 or Susan Kay's critically acclaimed Phantom. I did sense that Forsyth's book dovetailed into Webber's musical. If Webber and in turn Forsyth were wrong and took excessive artistic liberties, I'm none the wiser. Just be warned that if you're a Phantom purist, this may not be to your liking.

In the preface, Forsyth explains how Leroux was incorrect regarding certain details. That's tantamount to saying that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle goofed with Sherlock Holmes or that Louisa May Alcott was all wrong about the March sisters. Am I deluded in thinking that the creator of a character, by the very act of creating, has accuracy on his side? And who's to say that a fictional piece is inaccurate? Well, that's what Forsyth does.

The Phantom of Manhattan is told in diary form, using multiple narrators, which occasionally makes it confusing. The story begins with the deathbed confession of Antoinette Giry. Years before, at a carnival, she'd rescued a filthy, manacled, grossly deformed young man. She'd taken Erik home, nursed his wounds and had taken him to her work at the Paris Opera House. Erik explored the Opera House and became enamored of the music and one singer in particular. At this point in the story, I recognized ALW's story line, with Erik tutoring Christine and falling into a doomed love. At the end of Webber's musical, the Phantom vanishes. Forsyth's take is that Erik escapes to New York.

Madame Giry instructs a Parisian lawyer to travel to New York to find Erik and deliver a letter, one whose contents will change the course of many lives. We learn how Erik goes from one of Coney Island's wretched men who work at night gutting fish, to that of a reclusive multimillionaire. When he's denied a box at the Metropolitan Opera House, he builds an opera house of his own. His newly composed opera will showcase Christine's talents and will lure her to New York. Along the way, period names are dropped with seeming abandon. Oscar Hammerstein, Teddy Roosevelt, Mrs. Astor, Damon Runyon -- these and more are woven into the story, supposedly adding credibility and an air of authenticity to the story.

Webber's Phantom had a poignancy, a depth and complexity that somewhat offset his ruthlessness. Forsyth's Phantom lacks emotional or psychological depth. Everything that made prior Phantoms such compelling characters, everything that made us sympathetic, is gone. This Phantom is an unlikable enigma, with little magnetism or passion. Such a bizarre set of circumstances occur, circumstances that stretch credibility paper thin, and we're left shaking our heads in skeptical bewilderment at the ending that we're supposed to accept placidly.

Those who cried during Webber's musical may shed a tear in certain scenes. Erik's opera, The Angel of Shiloh, has moments of bittersweet poignancy and certainly is meant to bear a resemblance to Christine and Erik's story. Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, has a minor role, but his honor and goodness are still in evidence.

Sequels can serve a purpose by treating us to further glimpses of those characters we've come to admire and cherish. However, sometimes stories are best left alone. My impression of the Phantom is now tarnished. Perhaps I can focus on the Phantom as Andrew Lloyd Webber portrayed him, a tortured man whose unrequited love doomed him, and not as Forsyth's hollow impersonation.

--Linda Mowery


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