Ecstasy [Book Review]
Author: Mary Sharratt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Court
Published Date: 10th April 2018
Rating: 4 Stars
*Thank you to the publisher for the review copy*
Synopsis: In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era
Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees? In Ecstasy, Mary Sharratt finally gives one of the most controversial and complex women of her time the center stage.
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?
Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasyreveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.
Review: I saw Stephanie @ Bookfever’s book review of this one, and knew I had to read it for myself as well! It didn’t hurt that this book had such a beautiful cover (many thanks to the publisher for the gorgeous hardcover!) and that it is a historical fiction about a historical figure I hadn’t heard anything about before. Learning through reading is one of my favourite things to do.
Alma, the main character, has a very strong female voice. I would really say that feminism is one important theme in this book, but not in that it practices it all the time. But because everything that happens makes you see why feminism is important, and makes you question whether or not Alma has made the right choice in every situation she faces. Alma herself, seems to have very feminist thoughts which could be determined as unusual or unrealistic for her time. However, the author has clearly done her research because she quotes sections of Alma’s real diary which back up her fictional actions as well. You can see how Alma’s feminist streak is also fuelled by the hopefully Renaissance period that she is in.
Alma does a lot of traveling in this book and I liked that it felt like we went everywhere with her. She travels quite a bit within Europe, to Austria and Venice and other places too. But it was when she travelled to America that I felt the distinct shift in mood, setting and atmosphere to go with it. I loved that transformation and getting to hear about what she thought of such a different culture and way of life to the one she grew up in.
Alma is a composer and adores music, much like her husband as well. I love my music and am always listening to something, including classical music from time to time. I don’t know much of anything about composing, but it didn’t distance me from the reading experience at all. Her love for art and her passion about what she loves to do jumped out of the pages to me. I also see reading and writing as my own form of art, and I loved that she inspired me to do what I love even more. I was so engrossed in the art, music and composing even though I’m not usually into those things! I ended up listening to the operas she mentions in the book while reading to deepen my experience. I recommend you do the same.
The book gets right down to the business of romance with her first affair. The first love story comes hard and fast, but that more so has to do with the fact that we are meeting a young, underdeveloped Alma. She transforms a lot in the novel and her relationships deepen. So, if you are put off by the first love story, hold out. As she becomes more mature, the love stories improve too.
There were a lot of themes in this one. I feel like the themes of motherhood and the difficulties of being a mother, grief, being a wife but also being an individual, feminism and responsibility were all really well developed and discussed. I felt like the theme of depression was brushed over at first, but then comes back later on in the novel and gets more depth too. In fact, the themes and its character driven nature make me compare this one to Circe by Madeline Miller, except it’s not a mythology retelling but it’s a historical fiction.
It also made me think about adultery in a way I never had done so before. I don’t even know what I think about Alma and Gustav Mahler as a couple really. Their relationship was so toxic but at the same time there is clearly love there… I’m not sure what to think. You know this is one thought provoking novel for sure! I can’t wait to read more of Mary Sharratt’s work.
Relevance to today: I think this novel is a good one for showing how motherhood and being a wife is not easy and comes with its own sacrifices and troubles which can make it very hard on the woman who feels responsible for her family. I also think it really showed an interesting relationship. It was so twisted that I don’t even know what to make of it. One worth reading to make up your own mind about it and to learn about Alma Mahler.
Favourite Quote: ‘I’d rather be crushed under the weight of knowledge than go on living in ignorance.’
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Olivia’s Question: Do you think we need to change in a relationship to adapt to being in a partnership, or should you not change at all because you should be yourself?
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