In a song known to the listener, there is a pretense of the everlasting, of feelings somehow enshrined and made permanent. The pretense of return, of circularity, is one an artist incarnates with her being, knowing full well the particular frailties—perhaps dramatic, perhaps mundane—that trail her path to the stage. Those frailties may well be invisible to an audience. An audience may well rather not know.
Certain audiences value how closely a performance hews to tradition; others prize the distinguishing features, what comes across as unique and fresh. Song, return, repetition, claims of ancestral knowledge, and scandal: each figure has prominent elements in Adrienne Celt’s debut novel, The Daughters. Lulu, an opera performer descended from generations of female singers, several of whom occupy her living memory, is at the center of this feature, and it is a center to which the narrative loops again and again, enacting a sort of eternal return of its own via Lulu’s sinuous reflections.
Fittingly, for a novel so enmeshed in the life of a singer, Celt’s prose demands attention at nearly every turn. Many of her sentences register with finesse, range, and brass, evincing the world according to Lulu: “Fire can’t escape its tendency to burn. Not even for a beloved. It crackles and consumes; it wants to be the only thing breathing.” Or: “I undid them by the buttons. I burned off their clothes. The ones who understood the words I was singing looked at my belly and took it the worst, drained completely pale by the time the aria ended.” And: “I did seem to inspire a strange sort of passion.”
The preoccupation with fire relates to the Chicago-based Lulu’s ancestry: her great-grandmother, Greta, a native of Poland circa the early 20th century, is said to have made a deal with the devil in the forest, in order to bear a surviving female child. And at that she succeeded, before perishing along with most of her village twenty years later under World War II bombardment. Her daughter Ada, by then a student in the United States, was the only member who survived to tell the tale and relay it to her daughter, and then, in time, to Lulu.
Lulu, too, tells and embellishes the magically realistic ancestral tales, her long-departed great-grandmother nearly as vivid a presence in her life as her “animalistically private” mother, Sara. Sara, it turns out, abandoned her maternal obligations to Lulu when Lulu was only a girl to pursue a livelihood as a jazz singer: jazz cast here as the smoke-coarsened, bleary make-upped, earthier cousin to opera’s supreme decorum. Destined, like grandmother Ada, for the operatic stage, Lulu grew up fatherless and beholden to the magnetism of both her mother and grandmother, a quality she would one day seize for herself, as if by family prophecy. Reflects Lulu: “If [Sara] wanted a man she blew in his ear and he would follow her anywhere. Then she’d abandon him there. I never knew my father, because she wanted it that way. Whoever he was, she just didn’t care.”
At heart, The Daughters hangs on a question of paternity, although it’s never really a question: Lulu knows, and the reader learns without much ado, of a brief, nearly weightless fling she has with “a cowboy” out west before a scheduled operatic performance. When she discovers in the aftermath that she is pregnant, Lulu is unable to tell the truth to her doting husband John, also an opera performer, if one a shade less successful than she is. A daughter, Kara, is born, and John behaves as dotingly as ever.
He draws her close and nibbles on one ear, as if it were gold and he was checking it for purity. She squirms. “You know, though, I think she looks like me.”
“No she doesn’t.”
I’ve spoken before I can stop myself. Shut up, I think. Shut up, shut up. But John doesn’t seem to care.
John, reportedly sensitive as can be, is perhaps too accustomed to his wife’s bluntness to notice the ripple disturbing their surface-level harmony. The metaphor relating nibbling on an infant’s ear to checking gold for purity seems maybe a little discordant—imagine biting down on any ear, much less an infant’s, with the same pressure exerted on metal, even a soft one. That discordance, especially in her frequent sweeps toward the figurative, is characteristic of Celt. Or more specifically, of Celt writing as Lulu. This quality of Lulu’s being just a little deranged presents in the language from almost the outset. And the only real window we have on this story, no matter the number of forebears who take turns on the novel’s figurative stage (Greta, Ada, Sara, and at least in Lulu’s projections of the future, baby Kara, too) is Lulu’s.
The same longing for repetition that attracts people to a certain artistic performance can also manifest, in a more vexed, claustrophobic way, as neurosis. The desire that our own character be carved from stone, the same now as ever, paired with the sometimes traumatic realization that who we are as individuals may be mutable, can be left grasping air—in effect someone telling herself a story of herself that is somehow displaced or vestigial, a story with no hold in the present. This, in effect, is Lulu’s predicament: she finds herself unable to sing, and drowning with her secret in a swirl of eternally recurring matriarchal history. She cannot give herself over to her husband’s embrace because there is something critical about their union he does not know.
Celt’s The Daughters is nothing if not original, risk-taking, and nearly avant-garde in its difference from more commonplace narrative forms. It is also, transparently so, an early work, prone to undermining its own dramatic tension, seemingly in order to buck the more linear, arguably patriarchal, climatically ascending modes of storytelling.
The movement of The Daughters is mostly circular in nature: we know very early of baby Kara’s mistaken paternity; we know the rough outlines of Lulu’s family tree; we know that Lulu is having trouble taking center stage. The story consists entirely of how and when Lulu will break free from the prison of her own consciousness. For her readers, whose literary attention seems in some way meant to mirror the singer’s self-reported magnetism on stage, Lulu is willing to share her sense of Poland’s character as a nation, the story of Chopin’s disputed national allegiance, the substance and origin of the song Ave Maria, while the one admission that carries material weight in her personal life, the truth of Kara’s paternity, comes to the fore of her thinking again and again without passing from her lips to her husband’s ear.
Celt, who doubles as a charming, droll, and fairly spooky cartoonist (“Love Among The Lampreys”), excels most of all in evoking the micro-moment, the emotional sinews of intimacy. Her Chicago does not really feel like Chicago—it barely registers on the page—but Lulu’s nuanced headspace is real enough and evocative enough, while the depiction of an off-kilter, yet loving motherhood comes across as uniquely visceral and immediate. This novel is an enclosed world about enclosed worlds, the nesting doll of motherhood. It does not care to be understood by everyone. It is there for those who need it.