Come Back to Sorrento Paperback – 10 Nov 2000
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Two ordinary people with pretensions to greatness form a friendship based on reinforcing each other's airs of superiority.
About the Author
DAWN POWELL, who died in 1965, was the author of fifteen novels.
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The two main characters in the book are Connie Benjamin and Blaine Decker. When we meet Connie as a housewife in her mid-thirties, she is leading a life she finds sterile and barren with her husband Gus, a cobbler, and her two adolescent daughters. As a young woman, Connie had visions of a career as an opera singer, even though this ambition seemed to be based on little more than a commendation of her voice by a famous teacher. Connie also has a past in which she ran off with a young man named Tony who did acrobatics with a circus. Tony aboandoned her, and Connie lives with dreams of a singing career that perhaps could have been and with faded memories of Tony.
Blaine Decker comes to Dell River as the high school music teacher. He rents a small apartment above Gus Decker's shoe repair shop. Decker is a pianist by training (with small hands) who likewise has never had the artistic success of which he dreams. He spent his early years in Europe during which time he was a friend of a writer, Starr Donnell, who had written, as far as Decker knows, one novel. Powell hints throughout the novel at Decker's repressed homosexuality.
The novel explores the relationship that develops between Connie and Blaine. With their shared love of music and their broken, and probably illusory dreams, they feel stifled by the small town of Dell River. They share confidences with each other and at the same time quarrel severely with each other over their respective failures to pursue their dreams. The relationship is at bottom frustrating and unconsummated. It never becomes sexual.
There are wonderful pictures in this book of music and its capacity to bring meaning to life. The seriousness with which Powell discusses the pursuit of classical music in this work contrasts markedly with her picture of frivolous people and activities in her subsequent satirical New York novels. Powell also shows how music can be a means by which people evade their own selves and their own reality. There are also good depictions in the book of life in a small town, particularly those people who teach in High Schools, and of many secondary characters.
As do Powell's latter works, this book contrasts life in a small town with life in the cosmopolitian city, here represented by Paris more than by New York. But there is a certain inward focus to this book which is not shared by her latter satirical pictures of New York. The characters here are limited by Dell River and its environs, but their problems and discontents lie within themselves, in their lack of self-knowledge, and in their failed dreams. The book lacks the sharp cynicism of the latter novels but features instead reflectiveness and sadness.
Powell's writing style in this novel is rather flatter than in her subsequent works but it fits the atmosphere of Dell River that she conveys. There are several moments in the novel or lyricism and intensity.
This probably is not a novel that will ever enjoy wide readership. But it is rare and a treasure.
I love novels about life in small, undistinguished Midwestern towns, and I certainly found this novel enjoyable and compelling if not gripping throughout. Its characters are simply drawn, to the point of almost being strange, one-dimensional caricatures. Some of the twists of the plot are unlikely in the extreme.
In this sad little town, a self-isolated, fanciful married woman and a shabby, comically odd, but (self-proclaimed) worldly and cultured high school music director meet. A profound intellectual friendship develops between them. Both supposedly had near-brushes with success in the world of culture and music, but fate (or their own personalities and shortcomings) deprived them of it, leaving them to their current boring, mundane, almost pointless lives.
The relationship between the two odd people becomes their oasis, as they feel superior to all the other townspeople, and think constantly of the past (other places and times, anything but here and now) and what could have been and also intimate vaguely about a renewed (but unlikely) future.
The woman's stolid German husband, uncommunicative to the extreme, but a "good provider", tolerates this friendship. Frequent meetings between Professor Decker and Connie Benjamin (the wife), as well as Louisa (an intellectually inclined young female teacher) occur at Connie's house. Decker and Connie become obsessed with, and highly dependent upon, each other and the intellectual fantasy world they create.
This is not a romance in the normal sense, as there is little physical involvement between the two, or desire for it (except perhaps at a highly suppressed inner level). Their relationship is touching and in a way very understandable given their artistic temperaments and the boring world that surrounds them....
Then some things occur that throw their lives and their precious relationship into jeopardy. This is really a good book, almost like a fable or a fairy tale -- so simple that it is not realistic, but the points that Powell wants to make are thus all the clearer. I rarely give 5 stars, so my 4 stars has to be taken in that context.