Book Review and Author Interview: The Red Priest’s Annina by Sarah Bruce Kelly

Not long ago I had opportunity to read the young adult novel Vivaldi’s Muse, Sarah Bruce Kelly’s expanded version of The Red Priest’s Annina. Not only was I utterly enchanted by the author’s rich, descriptive phrases and seamless narrative, I was also delighted to learn of the first book. Expanding upon a previous novel is a wonderful way to introduce youth to fascinating and important figures in history and society, and with their reading comes growth and greater understanding–not to mention simply a fabulous story. I am honored and pleased to have been able to review not only Vivaldi’s Muse but now also The Red Priest’s Annina. I caught up with Sarah Bruce Kelly, who so graciously gave the time for an interview, which appears below the fold. To top it all off I’ve added a treat, cosied in between the two. Divertiti!

Red Priest's Annina
The Red Priest’s Annina tells the story of Anna Girò, who at age 14 in 1722 arrives in Venice hoping to study with Antonio Vivaldi, opera impresario and ordained priest. Referred to as Il Prete Rosso, for the color of his hair, Vivaldi had fingers that “flew like lightning over his violin strings, and his music sparkled with fire, as did his golden red hair and deep blue eyes.” Anna in fact had met him before in Mantua, her hometown, where her dreams of singing in the opera had developed, and now she longs to study with Don Antonio.

This young adult novel follows Anna not only through her studies but also her triumphs and despairs, wrestle as she must against forces holding her back, including her own uncertainty. From the very opening page, the girl falls mute to duty: “I bit back the song I ached to sing.” Though filled with the flight and excitement of song, Annina confides to us that arguing with her father is pointless, and retreats.

Shortly thereafter she learns of the circumstances that will take her to Venice, and despite her initial exhilarating introduction to the city and all its feasts for the senses, Annina begins to encounter the shadows that seem to accompany even the most ecstatic dreams. Kelly’s descriptive phrases flow like silk scarves sailing through Carnevale, as she leads us from the “salty sea air and the shrill of gulls flood[ing the] senses” through the obscure veneziano dialect and even slumping spirits following admonishing words designed to dampen Annina’s passion.

As language defines a people, it also characterizes the world Kelly has created, one filled with sights and sounds, scents and sensations that reach out with words utilized so skillfully one cannot help but be drawn in to the scenes themselves. When Annina first arrives at the house at which her patron had arranged her stay:

An old lady stood in the foyer, dressed entirely in black. Her withering stare made my throat clench. I felt gagged.
“I am Signora Malvolia, proprietress of this boardinghouse,” she said. “I understand you are here in Venice to study music, under the patronage of the Duke of Massa Carrara.”
The air, thick with the stench and taste of mildew, was dizzying.
“Si,” I said, as I sank into a curtsy with legs as wobbly as a newborn colt’s.
She pursed her lips and looked me over. “They call you Annina?”
I nodded warily.
“You may call me Signora,” she said, her lips tightening.

True to her name, Signora supports Chiara Orlandi, whose every move is designed to isolate Annina: rifling through her belongings, withholding mail, initiating rumors, engaging deceit, and at long last, offering a hand in friendship. How far is Chiara prepared to go before her plans backfire? Can a friendship between the two rivals succeed?

Given Annina’s age and inexperience, it is unsurprising that Chiara manages to fool and lead her into compromising situations. Annina’s determination not to be seen as needy or impractical leads her to internalize, which aids Chiara’s schemes. At one point it seems the threatened singer will manage to push Annina away from her dreams after all. After Annina botches a score transcription that makes her late for a music lesson, Chiara delivers the younger girl’s punishment:

“I’ve asked Signora to reassign your status in this household to that of a servant. Tomorrow morning you’ll begin to learn the art of dressmaking and assist our resident seamstress in sewing operatic costumes. That will be your fulltime job.”

Here Annina recalls her mother, who had abandoned the family, perhaps in an unhappy search for her own musical past, sacrificed for her female role in society, recognition only having come much later when she remarries in order to secure herself a protected place in society. Annina, a child of this second marriage, feels abandoned by everyone in her life and turns to la moretta, the mask purchased at the start of Carnivale from a woman who had told Annina she would suffer much, but that the mask would shield her. It seems to promise her protection, but by its very nature, her silence is the price for such safety. In our journey with Annina we witness her ongoing struggle with this duality: the need to have and develop her voice paired with the exposure that renders her vulnerable to those who would crush it. In turn we observe her impact on those in the same circle, and influenced by what her voice might offer.

Kelly has a delectable way with words, which enables her to convey a variety of lessons—music, history, political, social—while simultaneously presenting young adult readers with the story of a girl who endures personal struggles in many of the same ways they do. This particular span of years tends to be acutely rife with the politics of interpersonal relationships, harboring jealousy and rivalry as it does, along with the distinctly poor choices adolescents and teens often make in order to benefit with a positive spin. The opportunity to grow with Annina, to recognize Chiara’s schemes for what they are, is so rewarding because readers can relate to her, no matter their own talent or perceived lack of it.

While Signora is a fictionalized character, Chiara Orlandi is historical, of whom little is known. The Duke of Massa Carrara was one of Vivaldi’s early patrons, and although Kelly’s treatment of his character is ficticious, it is based on knowledge of the era’s common practices. These and other aspects of the story bring to life the realization that Kelly has done her research well. Based on documentation the author translated herself, she has woven a story that stands up to examination and critical exploration. The Red Priest’s Annina presents historical fiction at its finest.

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