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Tenor of Love

by Mary di Michele

Like scratchy ancient recordings remastered and yellowed photographs restored, Mary di Michele’s Tenor of Love gives us an Enrico Caruso as bright and clear as prose can render him. Her Caruso comes alive as a splendid – though entirely human – vessel for song. A young man of fledgling talent, “Rico” is so poor he poses for photographs in a sheet, as his only shirt is in the wash. Di Michele evokes his sexual directness, recounts his awful jokes, captures his delight in life. As she lays him out in his coffin, we can smell him.

Her inspiration, she says, was a line in a memoir by Caruso’s son about the public silence surrounding the Giachetti sisters, around whom “the better part” of the singer’s adult life revolved. The novel’s first narrator is Rina Giachetti, the 17-year-old girl who falls for the young tenor, then loses him to Ada, her older sister. Ada bears Caruso’s sons, but it is Rina who helps raise them. Caruso loves the beautiful, passionate Giachettis; yet he doesn’t trust them. He marries Dorothy, the dowdy American who narrates the “American Fairy Tale” that is the novel’s second part. Dorothy will never betray him; her loyalty endures beyond death.

The Italian-born di Michele is a poet, but one with an eye for plot that pulls the reader on. In her poetry she has conversed with dead poets and imagined the thoughts of artists like Edvard Munch. The novel gives her scope to explore at length genius, selfishness and selflessness, lust, jealousy, and love. This is a poet’s novel, rich with cadenced language and luminous images. As in opera, love and death are ubiquitous; Caruso’s early demise is graphically portrayed. Tragic though it is, the pain we feel is less for Caruso than for the women who loved him.