Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nijinsky in New York

A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky

Caro Soles


Publisher: Crossroads Press

Pub. Date: March 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


It is New York in 1916. The war in Europe is met with an uncomfortable silence by most Americans. The great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky has arrived in New York and is at odds with a number of people in the classical arts including the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. In the midst of this, Morgan Vanheusen, the son of a wealthy and important family, meets the dancer and a relationship starts between them. It is a odd relationship between the relatively stable if insecure Morgan and the eccentric and sometimes paranoid Nijinsky but Morgan seems to get something out of it, perhaps because he has his own abandoned dreams of becoming a race car driver and is thwarted at every corner by his overpowering family. While Nijinsky is dancing onstage, his partner for the dance "faints" and it is not until after he carries her off stage that they realize she has died. To some, including a detective and reporter, it may not just be because of a weak heart as the papers reported. Into this mystery Morgan and Nijinsky become involved while dealing with ballet intrigues and backstabbing, possible art fraud, and the exclusionary and sometimes hypocritical practices of America's upper class.

As the title A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky suggests, the main protagonist of the novel is Morgan Vanheusan. Nijjinsky plays a supporting role although a very essential one in both plot and theme. When we meet Morgan he is feeling rootless as he goes through the motions of life without any career goals, having been forced to give up his dream due to the death of his brother and the demands of a controlling father. Nijinsky revives that forsaken spirit in him and he and Nijinsky plays a little Sherlock Holmes, to which Nijinsky replies "Who?", as they attempt to discover some of the answers about who the young dancer Galina Perovna really was and why she was murdered. There is also a sub-plot with Morgan's sister Gloria and a reporter that gives us a look at the strict social roles of the times.

This is where the novel really shines. The mystery in the novel is rather slight, even forgotten at times, and while it points to a number of other intrigues going on, I suspect it is the era in America just before entering World War I that is the real focus of the author. She brings alive that era in not only the sometimes volatile world of the dance but in the very strong class differences and morals that made the era what it was. The author makes the characters, even the minor ones, alive in their thoughts and reactions. For instance, the upper class fawns over the artists but still sees them as being beneath them. While Morgan is applauded for his connection to Nijinsky, his family and especially his father sees the friendship as not worthy of him and subversive. The relationship between Morgan and the dancer, and eventually the revelations that arise from the death of Galina, reveal many of these complex underpinnings of social norms in the early 20th century. The mystery is entertaining and satisfying but it is the depiction of life in New York in 1916 where the strength of the novel comes through. While we read to decipher the murder's mystery, we are also aware that World War I will soon be placing a coda on the New York of that era.

Of course, if one is interested and knowledgeable in Nijinsky and ballet it is a real plus and will go far in the enjoyment of the book. Yet it is not necessary as Caro Soles does a fine job in introducing us to the essential details of the discipline in an entertaining fashion. But for me, having a pretty good knowledge of the arts and being able to recognize most of the actual historical figures that pop up among the fictional ones, the part that surprised me was the accurate information on early auto racing. Like i said, the author has a flair in bringing to life many things from ballet to auto racing. The author did her homework in almost every aspect of this historical mystery.

Those who are into mysteries with an historical connection will enjoy A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky. In fact anyone who like historical novels will find this worth looking into. You get not only a mystery but a time capsule into a world whose odd mixture of innocence and class separation has long passed.

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