Karen Ann Cullotta
Readers who shun historical fiction, dismissing the genre as a literary oxymoron, be forewarned: Rita Charbonnier’s novel, Mozart’s Sister, transcends all the tired stereotypes, Charbonnier brings Nannerl’s relationship with music to life, from the joy in composing to interpreting a score to the physical nuances of performing.
–Kirkus Reviewswinning over even the most cynical readers with its plaintive lyricism and beguiling narrative.
To be sure, Charbonnier’s debut English language novel, as translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, defies the constraints of literary genre itself. Thus, what could have been merely a fictionalized symphony of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life story with a minor key of 18th-century sibling rivalry thrown in for good measure is instead a dissonant literary opera which provokes more questions than it answers. […]
In the end, Charbonnier’s novel implores us to ask, was Mozart a misogynistic musical genius? Or was classical music’s poster child prodigy a sensitive soul, manipulated and ultimately destroyed by all those who would benefit from his preternatural gifts? The answer to both questions is, of course, yes, and Charbonnier is a brave and smart enough writer to wrap her literary arms around the lovely messiness of it all.
Historical Novel Society Reviews
Charbonnier’s dialogue in this debut novel is lively, while her narrative voice is wonderfully droll at times, moving at others. Her characters, ranging from a baron who spouts bad poetry to the mercurial Mozart, are vivid. Nannerl herself is a beautifully realized heroine, who grows from a sullen, angry girlhood into a graceful yet formidable old age and who at last is able to embrace her brother’s musical legacy. Her journey is one that will entrance both lovers of music and lovers of historical fiction.
Charbonnier is a pianist as well as a writer, and she has a real understanding of a true musician’s burning need to make music. She plots the arc of Nannerl’s life with flair, building it around an exchange of imagined letters between the handsome, sympathetic d’Ippold and a passionate, open-hearted Nannerl.
It was a pleasure to read Charbonnier’s concoction of a network of support for Nannerl — a Salzburg priest who advises Leopold to nurture his young daughter’s gifts as a composer, a suitor who values Nannerl’s sharp tongue, even when it cuts his own thick hide. And a happy ending — who wouldn’t wish that for the little girl who once performed in glittering royal courts only to be shunted aside for a favored younger brother?
Life can be unfair, but Charbonnier’s novel is a satisfying attempt to smooth out Nannerl Mozart’s playing field.
Le Vif-L’Express Weekend
Kerenn Elkaïm (Belgium)
>> Download the original article in French
The Italian Rita Charbonnier uses an arpeggio of words to compose a Requiem for Nannerl, Mozart’s forgotten sister. She too was a musical prodigy, and yet she had to give up her art. What could it have meant, for this woman, to live in her brother’s shadow? Worthy of a symphony, this literary debut has a harmonic and graceful narrative voice.
Where did the desire to resuscitate Nannerl came from?
As a child, I played the piano. It was my older sister who initially told me about Mozart’s sister. Later I found out that Nannerl and Wolfgang Mozart performed together, as two child prodigies, in the courts of Europe. But when she reached adolescence she was curbed in her artistic élan, probably only because she was a woman. I wanted to tell of the pain of having a talent that cannot express itself. When I was working on the novel, I went in search of the real Nannerl: of her psychological evolution, her passions, her failures, and her struggle to build herself an identity.
Is your book about a woman who is forced to make a great sacrifice?
It is not just the story of a talent that is repressed by circumstances. No one knows if Nannerl’s musicality was really equal to that of Wolfgang. My protagonist is also burdened by a self-destructive drive: at a crucial moment in the novel she burns the scores with her compositions written on them, and in this way destroys the best part of herself. She is a victim of her sex and her time, but we are all, for the most part, responsible for our own destiny. Nannerl constructs an armour around her heart. I think it is more interesting to tell about a soul battling with itself than just with destiny.
What is special about Nannerl and Wolfgang’s relationship?
From the moment that her brother is born, Nannerl loves him unconditionally. Both children are gifted with a strong musical instinct. They support each other and their souls move in unison. Their relationship begins to deteriorate when Wolfgang leaves for Italy with Leopold, their father: the bond between father and son strengthens and in parallel that between brother and sister disintegrates. I refuse to believe that Nannerl is jealous of her brother. She loves music too deeply not to love Mozart’s and by saving the Maestro’s work from oblivion, she is finally reconciled with him, and with herself.
Cristina Tirinzoni (Italy)
>> Download the original article in Italian
Combining an extraordinary capacity for psychological acuteness and a passion for music (she studied piano and opera singing before dedicating herself entirely to writing), in this excellent book, Rita Charbonnier fathoms the depths of complex emotional dynamics, grasping the hidden meanings within: love, anger, jealousy, resentment, incomprehension, detachment; up until the reconciliation, after the death of Mozart, when only affection remains. And love for the music of a genius.
La Voce di Romagna
Salvo Zappulla (Italy)
>> Download the original article in Italian
It seems to me, first of all, that to call this book a mere historical novel is rather reductive. There’s a lot more: the magic of music, brotherly love, carnal love, complicity, adolescent aspirations, dreams; dreams shattering against a barrier of harsh materialism. What could be crueller than to strip a creature like Nannerl Mozart of the chance of following her own inclinations? It would mean depriving her of her lifeblood. How you condemn someone like that to a lifeless existence?
Charbonnier the novelist digs around in people’s feelings, she investigates, she twines together passions, vulnerabilities, arrogance and immorality. And as always her dialogues are as alluring as siren songs. The character of Nannerl rises up with the strength of a titan, a moving, poetic figure. A talent perhaps equal to her brother’s, stifled by her male chauvinist father. Here again, as in the author’s other novels, we have a great woman destined to undergo injustices. Here again, the determination to drag her out of the darkness.
Rita faces a challenge: how to make light of bullying; how to demonstrate that literature can bestow immortality, overturn minds and preconceptions. If this novel has become a best-seller, in my view it deserved to do so because of its devastating force, for its expressive capability. No tricks and no illusions. None of those titillating inventions or commercial expedients that make for a box-office success. Just a novel, a great novel.
Tania González Chávez (Chile)
>> Download the original article in Spanish
Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, and her younger brother Wolfgang were both musical geniuses, but in the second half of the 18th century women were prevented from realising their potential by societal strictures. This is the framework mapped out in the novel by the Italian Rita Charbonnier, Nannerl, la hermana de Mozart, now published in Chile — and also in the French film written and directed by René Féret, that has the same title.
With a fast-paced and a very visual writing style, Charbonnier’s novel conveys the spirit of the time and keeps the chronology of the major events in Mozart’s life. […] The book and the film are completely independent of one another. The first deals with Nannerl’s life from childhood to adulthood while the movie is just about a family tour when the protagonist was 14 years old. And although the authors have been in contact, they are unaware of each other’s work. Féret has sent Charbonnier his screenplay, stating that he hadn’t wanted to read her novel so as to not be influenced; Charbonnier hasn’t watched Féret’s film which has not been distributed in Italy.
Piero Mioli (Italy)
The novel is well-written, captivating, now serious and now humorous (for example the meeting with the Queen of France who is old and melancholic though sensitive and sly). It is highly orchestrated; the author never lets fantastical digressions run away with her, always keeping the threads of the story in hand and expertly winding them up with full ensemble scenes that could be from an opera.