This is another gem that I discovered from Seagull Books; I seem to be particularly fond of their German literature in translation offerings.
Clara is young, beautiful and rich in the early years of the 20th century. Her father, who is from Italy, has shaken off his poor beginnings and after getting an education has become an engineer and has made a very comfortable life for his family. The story of Clara’s upbringing, family and her relationship with a famous orchestra conductor is told to us by Clara’s son on the very day that Clara’s lover dies.
When Clara is a little girl she is prone to fits of anger that paralyze her. The fits that the narrator describes appear to actually be epileptic seizures; when Clara has these episodes she can’t move, her fists are clenched and she retreats inside her own head and into a fantasy world. As Clara gets older these fits subside, but we can’t help but wonder if they have a lingering effect on her mental health.
Clara’s mother dies when she is a teenager and Clara is left to live alone with her stern, regimented and emotionally detached father. Clara gets up every morning to prepare her father’s breakfast in the exact way in which he demands; she runs the household and follows the same routine day after day. Her life changes, however, when she meets a man named Edwin who is a conductor of a Young Orchestra that he has formed on his own. Edwin’s group of musicians are mostly students and poor, but they participate in the orchestra because of their genuine love of music. It is also evident to everyone in the music world at this time that Edwin is a talented conductor who will one day be well-known for his musical genius.
Edwin asks Clara to become the secretary for the Young Orchestra and Clara throws herself into this job with the utmost enthusiasm. Like many of the musicians in the group, Clara idolizes Edwin and does whatever she can to make Edwin’s orchestra a success. She does her job magnificently and she takes no salary for her hard work. But when her father dies in 1929 of a sudden heart attack, he leaves her alone and penniless and her entire life and fortune change dramatically.
Clara is lucky enough that, by this time, the Orchestra is starting to make money and she can draw a salary from her job on which to live. Edwin also offers her his modest apartment which he is moving out of because he can afford a much better place to reside. It is also at this point in time when Edwin starts having a sexual relationship with Clara. But the relationship is emotionally one-sided and after he satisfies himself Edwin leaves Clara feeling alone and empty. But throughout all of this Clara still holds Edwin on a pedestal and accepts whatever scraps of attention that Edwin throws at her.
Clara’s devotion to Edwin is sad and difficult to understand. It is the classic situation of a woman being in love with a man who doesn’t deserve her. Long after Clara and Edwin are both married to other people, Clara still has feelings for him that run very deep. Clara’s son tells us that his mother is constantly whispering Edwin’s name right up until the very end of her life. Clara becomes so mentally unstable that she needs to be checked into an institution where she undergoes electro-shock therapy. Clara also tries to commit suicide several times throughout the years. Even at the end of her life, when she is in her eighties and living in a nursing home, she cannot let go of her thoughts of Edwin.
My Mother’s Lover is a short but powerful book about love, devotion, and mental health. I am so glad to discover that Seagull Books has an extensive backlist of fantastic books that I will enjoy making my way through for a long time to come.
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