The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges

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The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: After a vicious attack ends her professional career as a violinist, 32-year-old Isabelle Bryant must find a new purpose in life that still incorporates her love of classical music. Virginia Burges popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 334 Date: December 2014
Publisher: Amazon
External links: Author's website

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The title character of The Virtuoso is Isabelle Bryant, a professional violinist who has earned the affectionate nickname of 'Beethoven's Babe'. She was the youngest-ever winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and gave her first solo performance, of Beethoven's violin concerto, at Royal Albert Hall. 'Her violin represented another limb to her, it was that precious. It felt so natural, like an extension of her body.' It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the violin is Isabelle's life.

It is a cruel irony, then, that an episode of domestic violence robs Isabelle of her musical career. Her marriage to conductor Howard Miller has always been unhappy, marked by arguments and manipulation, but things get worse when Howard starts drinking. After cancelling her US tour and complaining about her relationship with her best friend, Hortense, Howard criticizes Isabelle's appearance on a radio show as 'celebrity whoring'. Isabelle has had enough of her husband's verbal abuse and decides to run away. He turns on her in a hideous attack that severs two fingers from her left hand – the very hand with which she plays the violin.

Waking up in hospital, Isabelle must face the fact that her professional career is over. Unlike some musicians, she never chose to have her fingers insured. She will have to give up her beautiful Nagyvary instrument. Initially she struggles with suicidal depression, but gradually she starts to regain her optimism and find new ways to express her love of music. Hortense, a jovial African-American singer, and her husband Ray take Isabelle along on a trip to Madeira to help her recuperate. A chance meeting with the editor of High Notes magazine then leads to Isabelle travelling to Vienna to write a feature article about Beethoven.

Burges has crafted a compelling story about how one woman turns tragedy into opportunity. Though Isabelle would never have chosen her circumstances, they allow her to reach a whole new audience with the power of music. Through magazine articles, lectures at the Royal Opera House and New York City's Metropolitan Opera about overcoming adversity, and a new charitable foundation that sponsors music programmes for underprivileged children, 'Beethoven's Babe' will keep spreading the word about how music can change lives for the better. As Hortense encourages Isabelle to believe, 'life is too fleeting to do anything other than live it to the full.'

The author has also worked as a classical violinist, so it is no surprise that she discusses music here with loving familiarity. Her descriptions of musical pieces and of settings ranging from a Sussex countryside cottage and a Portuguese island to Sydney, Australia are absorbing and realistic. Isabelle has an enjoyable cast of relatives and friends, especially Hortense and Sebastian, a Spanish cellist.

However, the characters have an unfortunate tendency to speak in clichés; 'when God closes a door he always opens a window somewhere else,' Hortense chirps, and 'the longest of journeys starts with a single step,' Isabelle's father counsels. The plot also approaches melodrama in places, especially when positing a surprising link between Isabelle and her estranged sister. It is heartening to see Isabelle get another chance at love after her divorce, but the love scenes with her new partner employ embarrassing Mills & Boon vocabulary: a 'firm groin', 'the elixir of love', 'bliss she had never before experienced', and so on. One last careful edit could also eliminate the fairly frequent punctuation and capitalisation problems.

The Virtuoso is a sensitive portrayal of a life in transition. Classical music lovers, especially, will delight in seeing a professional violinist as the main character of a novel. Yet anyone will be able to relate to some aspects of Isabelle's story. Despite a few sobering elements – including physical trauma, marital breakdown, and depression – this is ultimately a heart-warming tale about starting again even when life seems like it's over.

Further reading suggestion: Music lovers may also be interested in The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it by Philip Ball. For another novel where the violin plays a major role, try The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada. Karen Maitland writes fantastic novels - often with twisting plots that are set in the Medieval age. The Gallow's Curse by Karen Maitland is one of these, and well worth a read.

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Buy The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Virtuoso by Virginia Burges at

Bookinterviews.jpg Virginia Burges was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.


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