Natasha “Tasha” Darsky, the heroine of “Overture,” the first novel debut of Yael Goldstein, a Princeton resident, is the most stunning violinist in the world. Audiences flock to her performances from New York to Tokyo to Vienna, and critics herald her playing as the most intense and exciting of any soloist in classical music. In “Overture” Tasha, the first person narrator, tells the story of how she came to be so famous, and what secret longings live behind the glamorous facade.
“Darsky just might be the most erotic performer in any industry outside pornography,” says one New York magazine review. People magazine describes her as “a shot of sex appeal straight to the heart of classical music.” Goldstein speaks on her book on Wednesday, January 31, at Barnes & Noble MarketFair.
Goldstein’s Julliard-trained heroine starts at Harvard uninterested in concert performing. What she really wants to do is compose. She meets graduate student Jean Paul Boumudienne, well-known all over campus for being the most brilliant young composer on either side of the Atlantic. Spurning the romantic inclinations of her professor, she falls helplessly in love in Jean Paul, deciding that his guidance is all that she needs to learn to be great. Unfortunately, Jean Paul is considered to be the genius of the two, and one day, Tasha realizes that she’ll never be the composer he is, and that she must leave him.
After deciding to “settle” for the life of a concert violinist, Tasha’s art-dealer parents arrange a world tour for her. Her playing has taken on a fiery sexual quality that captures the heart of everyone that hears her play. Tasha says the pain of losing Jean Paul made “every piece of music into a lover’s spat with Jean Paul.” Catapulted onto the adrenaline-filled, competitive classical music scene, Tasha has a brief affair with the Polish filmmaker Aleksander Pasek, leaving her as a single mother. When Alex is 17, Jean Paul (now living in almost total obscurity as a teacher at Oberlin) comes back into Tasha’s life.
Author Yael Goldstein graduated from Harvard College in 2000. Now writing full-time, she moved to Princeton with her significant other, who is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at Princeton. Her father is a mathematical physicist who teaches at Rutgers and lives in HIghland Park. Her mother is a novelist and philosopher living in Boston. The following Q&A was provided by her publisher, Doubleday.
How did you come up with the idea for “Overture?”
I grew up with a mother who took her art very seriously. Though there’s no question that she was a loving and attentive mother, I was always vaguely aware as a child that time she spent with me was a source of mild guilt to her, because it was time when she wasn’t writing. I remember wondering from a very early age how much of one’s creative potential one should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of other people.
In adolescence I was drawn to books and movies that explored the tension between one’s duty to art and other goals, such as one’s own happiness or the happiness of those one loves. I was obsessed with the movie “Amadeus” and most books by Thomas Mann. But I also thought that in focusing on male artists these explorations, brilliant as they were, missed out on some of the most delicious subtleties of the issue because women tend to feel obligations toward other people more sharply and deeply than do men. In college I had the idea of writing a book that explored what it might mean to be a woman who takes her art just as seriously as any Thomas Mann hero (which, to my mind, is probably a little too seriously), but who is also a mother, and a really excellent mother at that.
To what extent did you draw, then, on your own relationship with your mother in writing the book?
I started the book the summer after I graduated college; I was 22 years old, and very much not a mother, so in writing the book I drew a lot on my observations of my mother’s experience raising my sister and me, though I also drew on my own feelings about motherhood, and, of course, on imagination. The main character is a far cry from my mother — Tasha Darsky differs from my mother in pretty much every aspect of personality, bearing, and history, and, of course, she’s a musician rather than a writer — but the book was my chance, nonetheless, to explore what it is I think my mother finally achieved brilliantly: somehow being a better mother for being an artist, and a better artist for being a mother. It’s the thing I most hope to achieve myself.
As for our relationship — no, it’s nothing like Tasha and Alex’s. We have a boringly untroubled relationship. I think the last time there was any tension between us was during a shopping expedition when I was 12. I threw a fit about something typically adolescent and then saw myself from the outside and was ashamed. Since then I don’t think we’ve ever fought. It’s sort of disgusting, really, how well we get along.
So then did you identify more with Tasha or with Alex while you were writing?
I should start by saying I love all my characters. I don’t think I can spend that long thinking about what it’s like to be someone and not find something to love about them. It would be interesting to test that by writing about someone truly hateful, actually. But certainly I love all the characters in “Overture,” including the ones who aren’t overtly likeable such as Aleksander Pasek and Abe Darsky. I’m mad about Jean Paul. I think I fell in love with him while writing, and he broke my heart. But Tasha is the one I love most, just because she’s the one I really became as I wrote. I still sometimes wake up missing her. I liked being around her. Toward Alex I felt very protective, very tender, but my loyalties, when push came to shove, were always with Tasha. I knew her the best. We’d been through a lot together.
You’re not yourself a musician, yet you write with an insider’s sense of the field. How much research did you do?
Before I began to write I spent about six months trying to get a sense of what the life of a violin soloist would be like, and familiarizing myself with some of the musical knowledge that would be second nature to Tasha. I read a lot of biographies of famous composers and of famous performers. I read a lot of back issues of the magazines Strings and the Strad and I listened incessantly to violin concertos. I continued to do research as I wrote, with more pointed research to answer specific questions. Usually for that I bothered friends who were professional musicians or academics in the field.
Did you do any other research for the book?
Since two significant portions of the book take place in cities I’ve either never visited (Krakow) or visited only as a child (Vienna) I spent several days holed up with travel guides before writing about those places. In the middle of writing the first draft of “Overture” I also spent two weeks researching the history of Polish film for the character of Aleksander Pasek.
At the time I was living with a boyfriend who used to get a real kick out of making fun of the fact that I did so much research for my fiction. He used to say, “It’s all made up anyway!” I did eventually convince him that even when you’re making stuff up it has to feel real. But what I never told him was that research is probably my favorite part of the process. I think I partly became a novelist just so I could have an excuse to spend months reading about whatever it is I’ve decided to be most interested in at the moment. For the past year that’s been the history and sociology of West Virginia.
Since I assume that research is for another book, it leads nicely to our last question. What’s next?
I’m working on a new novel, tentatively titled “Sweet William.” It weaves together two love stories, separated by 200 years and four generations of misunderstanding.
“Overture” booksigning, Wednesday, January 31, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. The first novel by Princeton resident Yael Goldstein. www.bn.com or 609-716-1570.