Top positive review
All aboard the Powers train
Reviewed in the United States on November 16, 2015
When I put this book down at the end my first reaction was:
Wow. That was something.
Richard Powers knows how to write expansive, subject-throttling novels. Richard Powers knows how to write beautiful sentences. But most of all, Richard Powers knows how to take a subject (here, music) and dive deeply into it; so deeply, as a matter of opinion, that the subject itself becomes the main character of the novel. Is that a good place for a novel, and you as a reader, to be? I'm not so sure, on both accounts. But this is how the man writes. Beautiful writing layered on top of his top-notch research into a subject layered over characters who serve the purpose of what he means to say. (The only other Richard Powers novel I've read was written the same way. In The Echo Maker the main character was brain damage.)
So. Orfeo tells two stories. Really, though, three stories. We go back and forth in time (Get it? Back and forth. Music. In time.) to follow the story of avant-garde composer Peter Els. Present-day Peter has gotten into trouble over his home bio lab with Homeland Security and hits the road (but it takes half the novel for him to do this). In Past Peter's story we learn how he came to be. The "third story" here is music. As you read you'll want to have your laptop/desktop handy, because this is a Richard Powers novel, and you'll need/want to google some term or some name or some event every other page or so. Or, just go along for the ride. (I find that I tire of googling as I'm reading a Powers novel after about page 300. Especially when the name-dropping becomes carpet bombing. At one point in the text there were at least ten names of modern, avant-garde composers lumped one after the other, and I got tired after looking up the second one. It didn't enrich my reading, it irritated it. And I don't get it because I've given up. Because I'm at the point where I'm not sure it really matters.)
This novel is rich. Rich writing, rich storytelling, rich subject matter. And it's a lovely read. Yet. Yet. For all the life he gives his sentences, his plot and characters seem somehow (a bit) lifeless and used merely to press home his points.
I still very much enjoyed this work, though. It was a pleasure to read, and an engaging read. I've found new great music to enjoy, and another Richard Powers book to recommend. Just know what you're getting yourself into. Get your search engine ready....