Book Review of “Ecstasy: A Novel of Alma Mahler” by Mary Sharratt
Part of the blurb for this book on Goodreads says “Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?”
This book sounds exactly like what I look for in historical fiction novels; a story about a lesser known (or unknown) woman in the life of a very famous man. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Mahler’s music, but some of the other blurbs I read about this book mentioned one of my favorite artists, Gustav Klimt. Since I didn’t know anything about Alma, the idea of reading about someone who was being hyped as one of his muses, was intriguing. What I found with this book, however, wasn’t exactly that, but it did tick many of my boxes.
What I did get here was a luscious portrait of a very conflicted woman; a woman who might have become world famous, had she been born during another era. This goes directly to the title of this review, since Sharratt portrays Alma as a woman who struggles with two sides of her personality. One being the virginal, self-sacrificing beauty and the other the passionate, selfish vixen. Sharratt even uses this same analogy when giving Alma voice to her inner troubles, as she depicts Alma as a woman desperately in love with her husband, who is at the same time distraught by the suppression of her own creativity. What makes this even more poignant is how Sharratt shows how any one of the other men in Alma’s life who were more than willing to marry her, might have allowed her to continue to compose after their marriage. That type of male dominance over wives that was the norm at the time in Europe, was already beginning to wane, but sadly not soon enough for Alma.
While the major focus of this novel is Alma, no small amount is devoted to Mahler as well. Of course, it would have been impossible to write about Alma and ignore her husband’s world-renowned fame or his equally public infamy. What I didn’t know about Mahler was his amazing skills as a conductor, which it seems was as enormous as his ego as well as his ability to terrorize his orchestras and artists. The latter, while probably partially fictionalized by Sharratt, makes perfect sense considering his treatment of his wife, who he obviously adored, but frequently misunderstood. This also fits perfectly with his wanting Alma to give up composing as a condition for her marrying him. That, combined with Alma’s adoration for Mahler, set up the very realistic conflict that Sharratt placed at the heart of this fictional story, allowing for the deluge of emotional tsunamis that fill practically every page.
All of this left me somewhat exhausted by the end of this book, which made me wonder if Sharratt didn’t go a touch overboard with including so much of this mutually obsession-filled marriage in such careful detail. In addition, after reading her afterward that included further factual details about Alma’s life after the death of Mahler, I realized I would have preferred less aspects of the story about their life together so that we could have learned more about what happened to her later in her life. This was the same problem I had with the novel I, Eliza Hamilton. Yes, it is great to have such a comprehensive story about that part of Alma’s life, but he died in 1911 and she lived until 1964! Ignoring a full 54 years, many of which sound tumultuous, affords us a very narrow view of who Alma really was, even if these were her formative years.
I should mention that I received a copy of Sharratt’s 2016 novel “The Dark Lady’s Mask,” which impressed me regarding her writing ability, but I unfortunately could not finish reading it, mostly because of the literary licenses she took regarding Shakespeare, which were either far-fetched theories or pieces of essential information that were easily proven very wrong indeed. Sharratt seems to stray less from the facts here, which is enhanced by her inviting writing style that blends perfectly with the era. However, I cannot ignore my feeling that I only got half of the story I was hoping to read, nor the fact that Klimt was included in the hype for this book (and the obvious inspiration for the beautiful book cover) but ended up as barely a blip on this novel’s radar. For this all, I think I’ll still recommend this book, but I can’t give it more than three and a half stars out of five.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released “Ecstasy” by Mary Sharratt on April 10, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audiobooks, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (free worldwide delivery and supporting libraries and literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.