Musicologist Frederica Bannister fell in love with Johannes Brahms when she was but a teenager. It was a self-protective move, of course: nurturing an all-consuming, pointless infatuation with a long-dead composer was as good a way as any for an awkward adolescent to shield herself against real-world heartbreak. But now she is an adult, and the obsession persists. When a rare opportunity arises for one academic to travel back in time to 1861 and observe Brahms, Frederica knows she must be the one chosen. She will do anything to see him, and to decipher a long-standing puzzle about his music.
This single-minded drive to know Brahms gets the better of Frederica as soon as she finds him in an Italian hideaway and discovers that he’s having a once-in-a-lifetime romantic tryst with his old friend Clara Schumann. Jealousy consumes her; she cannot bear to remain an observer, or for Clara to have what she cannot. So Frederica possesses poor Clara, clinging to her with tenacity, abandoning her home time and the comatose body she left there.
Not surprisingly, the time travel researchers running the project are first concerned when Frederica doesn’t return, and then frantic. They are left grasping at straws as they try to figure out how they lost her. In ttime, they turn to the second runner up for the research expedition — another musicologist, by the name of Kristian North. Kristian is an expert on Brahms and on Clara Schumann, too. He goes to 1861 and immediately understands what Frederica has done. The question is: can he somehow dislodge her, without harming Clara, before she changes the past and ruins both musicians’ reputations — irrevocably changing their lives and their music — forever?
The Brahms Deception is the follow-up to Louise Marley’s Mozart’s Blood. (I wrote about this novel here, and the new book has a few glancing references to its protagonist, Octavia Voss, but the ties are light — it’s not a sequel.) It is a book that will put readers in mind of A.S. Byatt’s unforgettable 1990 Booker Prize Winner, Possession: A Romance. Both novels, after all, depict academics who discover a secret love affair between the heroes who’ve become the raison d’etre of their careers. Both have intertwined love stories that play out in the past and present.
In Possession, Byatt weaves her literary lovers — Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte — from whole cloth, while making it seem impossible that they aren’t part of the English literary canon. She achieves this by creating portions of their poetry and building a vividly-evoked culture of scholarship around the two. Marley is writing about music, not poetry, and she chooses real composers, authors of music that is woven deeply into the tapestry of Western culture. The fictional romance between Schumann and Brahms is stitched into a small gap within their well-documented personal histories. It is a classic alternate-history technique, well-conceived and carefully executed.
The Brahms Deception is also a book about people who get exceptional opportunities — and about what they make of them. Clara Schumann and Brahms have one tiny window in which to explore their love: the circumstances of very public careers have made it impossible for them to marry, or even to risk more than one sexual interlude. Kristian’s life, meanwhile, has been something of a train wreck since his chance to time travel was wrested from him by Frederica. As for Frederica herself, she is a child of privilege and doesn’t even realize it. For her, one lucky break is not enough: she’ll buy, bully and steal whatever she wants, without regard for the consequences.
This unrepentant selfishness is revealed with a delicious, creeping awfulness that one usually sees in male villains. She’s abusive, is Frederica, but she talks a good game, and for awhile I bought her excuses and her promises to change. In retrospect, it was no surprise that her chosen victim — and the backbone of The Brahms Deception’s story — is someone who had so few choices to begin with. Clara Schumann was very much boxed in by duty throughout her lifetime: she lived first for her father, then her husband, and finally for her children. Predators feed on the vulnerable, of course, and once Frederica has Clara in her claws, there is not much anyone can do to save her.
Kristian fights for her nonetheless, returning to 1861 repeatedly, risking the hazards of time lag, and fighting an increasingly panicky bureaucracy and Frederica’s enraged father. All he wants is to save Clara, or at the very least to preserve her music and her reputation for posterity. He loves Clara Schumann, so much so that it’s tempting to think he’s every bit as obsessed as Frederica. But when this novel has run its course he faces the same choice she did: cling, or accept what you have gained already?
It’s not an easy question, and it is awhile before Kristian settles on an answer, but the final notes of the story should please Marley’s readers immensely.