Sleeping With Schubert
by Bonnie Marson
(Random House, $21.95, PG) ISBN 1-4000-6041-9
***
If Sleeping With Schubert were a romance paperback, nobody would take it seriously, but because itís published by Random House in hardcover, itís being reviewed in mainstream publications and film rights have already been purchased. After finishing the book, I have to wonder how debut novelist Bonnie Marson accomplished this impressive feat, because the novel is only sporadically successful. Thereís a lot to like in this story of an ordinary heroine who is suddenly and inexplicably possessed by the spirit of Franz Schubert, but there are plenty of missteps as well. †

Brooklyn lawyer Liza Durbin doesnít have any warning that her body is about to host a 19th century German composer; one minute she is shopping, and the next she is sitting down at the department store piano, playing a beautiful, complex piece of music. Certainly the grade school piano lessons she suffered through didnít prepare her for this sudden virtuosity. In no time at all, Liza figures out that Franz Schubertís presence is living inside her. Theirs is an uneasy alliance; although Liza retains control of her body most of the time, occasionally she engages in bizarre behavior that can only be explained by Schubertís startled reactions to 21st century New York. They donít communicate in words, but Liza gradually comes to understand her guestís emotions. She grows to welcome the joy that Schubert experiences when they play piano together, but worries that if she lets her guard down, he will take over her body and she will lose herself entirely. †

There are other complications as well. Now compelled to play piano on a regular basis, Liza attracts the attention of a prickly, demanding Julliard music teacher who propels Liza towards instant stardom by scheduling a Carnegie Hall concert. While some of her closest family and friends know and accept Lizaís secret, she is strangely reluctant to share the truth with her boyfriend Patrick, who becomes much more amorous and attentive when confronted with Lizaís new talents. And there are always the nagging questions: why did Franz Schubert pick Liza Ė a non-musical, unremarkable lawyer? Does he have unfinished business that he has returned to accomplish? And what happens when and if he vanishes as abruptly as he appeared? †

LoveSpell books tackle this type of plot on a regular basis and is ignored by literary critics. So what does Sleeping With Schubert do to earn mainstream buzz and the chance to become a major motion picture? At times itís hard to tell. Debut novelist Bonnie Marson seems to have bitten off more than she can chew and frequently loses control of her plot, especially in the bookís expository first half. Of course there has to be a suspension of disbelief to accept the unusual premise, but Marson doesnít even try to explain how and why Schubert attaches himself to Liza Durbin. Nor is there any mystery about what is happening to her; by page 16 Liza is fully aware that sheís hosting a famous composer. I like a fast-paced story, but solving this riddle so quickly takes away some of the potential suspense and eliminates an early opportunity for the reader to sympathize with Liza while she figures out whatís going on. †

And frankly, Liza isnít always easy to sympathize with. She comes across as pretty selfish, taking advantage of her platonic guy friend Fred, yet accusing him more than once of betraying her without any evidence. She has never quite forgiven her glamorous younger sister for stealing and then marrying her college boyfriend, but her own great love affair with Patrick is tainted by the fact that both were married to other people when they became involved (I guess thatís what makes the book edgy and acceptable; itís not very romantic). †

But the book does have its strengths, especially in the second half, when Marson gains better control over the story. At various times it is funny, dramatic and suspenseful, and Marson accurately pokes gentle fun at the merchandising of todayís celebrities. Although the secondary characters arenít all likeable, they are well-developed and believable, and Lizaís attention to a young protťgť compensates for her earlier self-centeredness. Franz Schubert himself doesnít get much of a chance to make an impression until later in the book when Liza starts experiencing his dreams and memories, but by the end the reader roots for his spirit to find the peace it deserves. Ultimately, what redeems the novel is Lizaís growing understanding of the power of music, and the way that creative arts can transform our lives. †

If you are ready for a cross between LoveSpell and Red Dress Ink, you might find yourself more entertained than frustrated by Sleeping With Schubert. While I canít recommend it wholeheartedly, itís an entertaining concept and a promising debut. †

--Susan Scribner


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