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Book Review: "The Vexations" is missing its heart

As a former orchestra nerd, seeing a composer’s life fictionalized is a dream come true. Days spent daydreaming how the hell these composers came up with their famous melodies was a favorite activity of mine as a kid. Caitlin Horrock’s debut novel “The Vexations” attempts to add flavor to French composer Erik Satie’s life.

Based on the life of eccentric composer Erik Satie, “The Vexations” chronicles his and his younger siblings’ childhoods and adult lives. After their mother’s death and father’s abandonment, Erik, Louise, and Conrad are separated by their extended family across France. Throwing himself into the Parisian art scene, Erik attracts notoriety and success as a composer and provocative writer.

As time passes and fame fades, the only people who remain steadfast are Louise and Conrad. But after tragedy strikes, the siblings must come to terms with Erik’s fame and the cost it will ultimately have on their family.

Despite the description saying “The Vexations” focuses on the life of Erik Satie, there are few chapters from his perspective and fewer examinations of the composer from other characters. Horrock circles his siblings, friends, and former lovers more than the composer, diving into their struggles, heartaches, and fights while disregarding most of Erik’s life. As a fan of Satie, I was disappointed in Horrock’s decision to fixate on everyone but him. Don’t get me wrong––I immensely enjoyed the themes of family, art, love, and the cost of greatness, but these musings were overshadowed by literally every other character.

Not to mention, the chapters were slower than molasses; intricate details (which at times were immersive–especially with the setting) and ruminations that were so repetitive, I could predict what the character would say next. Overall, the plot dragged to the point where I wanted to skip to the last few chapters and just be done with it.

Nevertheless, Horrock’s characters were compelling and nuanced––specifically Louise, Phillipe, and Suzanne. With all the heartaches that come with them, Louise's childhood and adulthood shed light on the time period’s sexism, misogyny, and gender norms that persist today. Other composers and artists of the period also made appearances, including Saint-Saens, Debussy, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau.

Momentarily captivating and heartfelt, “The Vexations” had the potential to be a great fictionalized version of a composer's life but left out a vital piece of the puzzle: the composer himself.

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