"A tangled knot of betrayal and love, lies and redemption. Marvelous." --Fiona Davis, author of The Address
A song brought them together.
A secret will tear them apart.
Venice, 1736. When fate brings Violetta and Mino together on the roof of the Hospital of the Incurables, they form a connection that will change their lives forever. Both are orphans at the Incurables, dreaming of escape. But when the resident Maestro notices Violetta's voice, she is selected for the Incurables' world famous coro, and must sign an oath never to sing beyond its church doors.
After a declaration of love ends in heartbreak, Mino flees the Incurables in search of his family. Known as the "city of masks," Venice is full of secrets, and Mino is certain one will lead to his long-lost mother. Without him, the walls close in on Violetta and she begins a dangerous and forbidden nightlife, hoping her voice can secure her freedom. But neither finds what they are looking for, until a haunting memory Violetta has suppressed since childhood leads them to a shocking confrontation.
Vibrant with the glamour and beauty of Venice at its zenith, The Orphan's Song takes us on a breathtaking journey of passion, heartbreak, and betrayal before it crescendos to an unforgettable ending, a celebration of the enduring nature and transformative power of love.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
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She spun from her bedroom window, from the seagull roosting on the terra-cotta rooftop next door. She'd been willing its wings to take flight and abandon this shadowy alley. If Violetta were a bird, she would be gliding over the ocean. She would never land on the same ship twice.
Outside, the September morning was so bright, and her sliver of sky so blue, that when she turned from the window it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the heaving form in her doorway.
"What is it, Laura?" she asked, making room on the bed for her friend. Both girls were sixteen. They had been neighbors, sharing a wall between their single bedrooms on the second floor since they graduated from the nursery at ten. "Come, catch your breath. Take a lesson from a lazy seagull."
But it wasn't Laura's nature to catch her breath. She could worry over anything, from rain dampening a feast day to what happened to sparrow eggs when a mother bird swallowed a pebble of glass. She worried over the moisture from her palms when she played a difficult piece on the violin, drying the wood fastidiously with linen so it wouldn't warp. She worried over how to distinguish her playing from the other violinists in the music school. She worried deeply over being promoted to the coro, and she worried that Violetta didn't worry enough about being promoted with her. She never missed an opportunity to remind Violetta that the coro had space for only thirty-three women at a time, less than half the number presently training in the music school. There were only a few openings each year, as the older girls married or retired to nunneries.
Laura worried over Violetta's voice exercises and the sheet music for Violetta's librettos-too often left scattered on the floor. Over the years, Laura had gotten better at making up excuses for the prioress when Violetta was late for a lesson, but she never stopped worrying that Violetta would be caned. Their relationship was a duet: the more Laura worried, the more Violetta gave her cause to.
It wasn't that Violetta was carefree; she only seemed that way to Laura, who turned toward her worries as much as Violetta tried to escape them. It was why she spent so much time at her window, imagining herself beyond it.
Laura stuffed a loose curl back into the great brown bun of her hair. "Of course, you didn't hear."
"Hear what?" Violetta didn't know how long she'd been at the window. This happened on days when she'd had the dream.
The wheel, the woman. That song. Eleven years had passed since that night, but she remembered the dark race downstairs as if it were yesterday. She'd been the only one who knew he was there, stuck. The only one who could help. She'd never been so near a boy's alien body. He'd still been sleeping when she pulled him from the wheel.
Years later she had realized that his mother must have drugged him. That he hadn't even heard the woman's song.
Whenever Violetta dreamed that song, it rendered her waking life muted and pale. She struggled to go about her responsibilities as usual: rising at sunrise, praying aloud by rote-first the Angelus, then a prayer for suppression of heresy, one for their most pious republic, one for the benefactors and the governati of the Incurables, and on and on-just as all the other murmuring voices did in the rooms to the left and right of hers.
Before mass she had taken her breakfast of porridge and cream as the prioress's wide hips moved between the rough wood tables, spouting sacred readings in her corrosive whisper, daring any of them to gossip or to giggle. And then the morning had passed with three hours of music lessons-first with the full music school, second with a smaller coterie of singers, and finally with her private tutor, Giustina.
Giustina was beautiful, twenty-four, and the lead soprano in the coro. She was known as bella voce throughout the city, and even beyond the republic of Venice. Tourists traveled from across Europe, paying dearly to hear her perform. Last summer, she astonished Violetta, selecting her as one of two apprentices. Violetta still could not be sure what Giustina saw in her, but her sottomaestra's patient generosity inspired her to try her best.
At the moment, she was meant to be reading the latest corrections to her sheet music, practicing her trills and passaggios. Giustina would test her on them later, before compline, the prayer at end of day. But Violetta hadn't even looked at the pages. The moment she'd been free to close herself in her room, she'd drawn near the window, felt the warmth beyond it, and let her mind fly away.
The dream song haunted her, those words she could never sing aloud.
I am yours, you are mine . . .
It had become her song. But who or what was she addressing? Sometimes she still thought of the boy she had pulled from the wheel that night. Before Violetta had left him near the embers of the kitchen hearth, tucked beneath a folded tablecloth, she had discovered the small painting clutched in his hand.
It was half a painting, really, a thin piece of wood, splintered from being shorn diagonally in half. It hung from a broken chain, as if it had once been a pendant. It featured a naked woman. Half a woman. Face and breasts and a belly covered by waves of flowing blond hair, the same shade as the boy's. Dark eyes cast into the distance, her mouth open in song against a blue sky.
The boy's mother must have kept the other half. Most orphans at the Incurables had some such token-part of a painting or a swath of patterned fabric-proof of a bond, should destiny ever reunite mother and child.
Violetta had none. She didn't believe in such fantasies.
She'd never seen that boy again, so separate were the lives of boys and girls at the Incurables. She didn't want to see him, though he was always with her. The song meant for him haunted her, gave words to the part of herself she most wanted to deny-that someone had done the same thing to her. She hoped he had no memory of his abandonment, that he never had to think upon that night. Likely by now he had moved on from the orphanage to an apprenticeship somewhere in the city.
"Violetta!" Laura took her arm. "Porpora is back."
Violetta jumped to her feet. "Why didn't you say so?"
That year, the Incurables had commissioned the famous Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora to lead the coro. He was the final authority, determining which girls advanced and which did not. Even the youngest students, tiny children six years of age, straightened their shoulders and hushed their gossip at the mention of his name.
Those Porpora chose for the coro could look forward to years of intense collaboration with the brilliant, tightly wound composer and to regular performances before admiring crowds. The women of the coro enjoyed leisure time, more frequent outings, better food, and wine. Some of them received letters from important Venetians or European tourists who traveled just to see them perform. A portion of the sizeable earnings from their concerts was saved in a special dowry.
The girls not chosen for the coro became figlie di commun, the ordinary women of the orphanage. They served as nurses to the syphilitics on the first floor, or toiled in menial tasks like laundry and lace making, sewing and dyeing the thick wool cloaks that inimitable shade of midnight blue. Some became zie and cared for foundling babies. Figlie di commun worked for the orphanage until they were forty, and then they were sent to a nunnery. The only possibility of escape was to be sold off as a servant. But worst of all, the music simply stopped. There were no more opportunities to practice or perform if you were a figlia di commun.
This horrified Violetta. All they knew of life was music, and to have it taken away? She and Laura had pledged to each other that they would not accept this fate. Deep down, Violetta suspected that both of them knew Laura would be fine, but that Violetta, with her tendency toward daydreams, might not make the cut.
The maestro had been abroad for all of August and half of September. Lessons relaxed in his absence, but no longer. Porpora would stay on through the fall, through the festival of carnevale, as the coro prepared for their most important season of performances, Advent. For Violetta and Laura, and each of the sixty-two younger girls in the music school, Porpora's arrival meant a trial by fire.
"He wasn't meant to return until next week," Violetta said.
"He's early," Laura said. "And he wants to hear us. In the gallery."
"The gallery?" That was where the coro girls performed. Violetta had been in its anteroom many times, fetching sheet music for Giustina, but she'd never set foot in the special enclave that looked down over the entire church through a gilded grille. The music school girls practiced in a stifling, windowless chamber above the apothecary. It stank of the holywood tea brewing for the syphilitics downstairs.
"You're already late," Laura said, "and you're not leaving this room with your hair like that."
"What's wrong with my hair?" Violetta tugged the thick, dark rope that hung to her waist. There was no mirror in her chamber. She couldn't remember the last time she'd brushed her impossible hair.
"Leave it to me," Laura said, moving behind her, standing astride Violetta on the creaking bed, her toes nudging Violetta's thighs through her slippers. "You start warming up. Scales. And, Madonna, stockings!"
Violetta worked the scratchy wool stockings up her legs, fastening them with a ribbon just above her knee. She grumbled when Laura undid her days-old braid and pulled dense knots from her hair.
While Laura's fingers gathered and combed, Violetta straightened her back and breathed through a fibrous wall of nerves. She pulled on her tongue, flattening it between her fingers as she moved through three octaves of scales, as Giustina had taught her to do.
"When you sing," the sottomaestra had said, "you must think of what you want to say to the world."
When Violetta sang, she was barely confident enough to want to be heard, let alone to convey a message. She found it hard to imagine the world might be listening to her.
She turned the question back on Giustina. "What do you want to say to the world?"
Giustina pressed both hands to her breast and sighed. "Love is here."
Violetta's eyes had pricked with tears, for she felt there was nothing higher any musician could aspire to. And she felt hopeless. She would never be able to sing something so brave and essential to the world. She wanted to see and hear the world and be inspired by it. She couldn't imagine returning the favor.
Giustina had squeezed Violetta's shoulder and said softly, "Don't worry, you'll find it."
Would she? Violetta was a soprano, but a faint one, and despite her years of practice and prayer, her voice still stretched to reach the highest notes of the complicated arias she loved best. Sometimes she felt fear holding her back. If she could only make the coro and relieve herself of this anxiety, her voice might come into its own. She wondered what it felt like to perfect an aria, to sing as Porpora intended-or better. But when she thought of asking Giustina, she knew this was not something one could express, much like the buried root of Violetta's own longing.
The best moments were those when she felt her voice blend with the other singers'. When she felt a part of the music instead of alone. Then Violetta longed to be nowhere else, caught in the joyful embrace of a song.
But today the dream had its grip on her, and she felt unworthy of the music. Why did the maestro have to arrive now?
At least Laura's presence was a comfort. Soon she and Violetta synchronized-as Violetta moved toward the upper registers of her scales, Laura spun her hair into a neater, tighter braid. Music was in all the girls so deeply that they made it out of everything they did: the syncopated clanks of their spoons against their bowls at dinner, the soft percussion of their footsteps to nightly confession, the tenor whistle of their piss into porcelain pots.
"Hold your notes. What's wrong with you?" Laura said as she secured Violetta's hair. She came around to stand before Violetta, smoothed a wild cowlick, nodded at her work. She touched one finger under Violetta's chin, raised it, looked into her eyes.
"You had the dream?"
Violetta nodded, quiet but not ashamed. From the years she'd slept in the nursery she knew that nightmares were common. Laura knew Violetta dreamed of one thing again and again, and that when she did, it brought great sorrow, but she had never asked Violetta for details. And Violetta had never clarified; she had never asked about Laura's own painful dreams. What would have been the point? Each girl here had so little from her time before, when she had been figlia di mamma-the daughter of a mother-not just figlia degli incurabili-a daughter of the Incurables.
For Laura, it was enough to know Violetta had the dream and that the day would be shaped by its ghost. And so Laura's hand found Violetta's, a reassuring secret music in the pressure of their palms, in the sound of their slippers as they ran for the bridge.
The bridge was a short, windowless passageway, no longer than a gondola, accessed through the third floor of the dormitory. It arced over the courtyard and connected to the church in the center, opening onto a small anteroom where the coro girls warmed their voices, tuned their violins, and broke in new oboe reeds before performances.
Beyond a white door at the far end of the anteroom was the treasured performance space of the coro: the singing gallery. A chest-high marble parapet enclosed the gallery, and, above the parapet, the famous brass grille of sculpted orange blossoms was the object of widespread fascination. The grille was intended to obscure the performers from the eyes of the church below-and vice versa-but when Violetta sat in her pew downstairs with the other music school girls and gazed up, she could discern which girl was which.
How powerful and mysterious they had looked behind those gilded orange blossoms. How she always wanted to be one of them. She suspected most parishioners spent the full mass straining to see the angels making music on the other side.