Heart Strings 

Eighteenth-century Venice comes intoxicatingly to life in Barbara Quick's novel Vivaldi's Virgins.

Abandoned as a baby at the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th-century Venice, a fair-haired, dark-eyed little girl grows up as a member of the figlie di coro, daughters of the choir: female foundlings trained to be musicians under the tutelage of the composer they call Don Vivaldi. Dubbed Anna Maria dal Violin — because "none of the foundlings is allowed to know her surname, if she has one" — this talented teen searches high and low for the mother who abandoned her in Barbara Quick's sensual, lyrical, musical novel Vivaldi's Virgins.

What drew the Berkeley author to its intoxicating setting was mainly her love of the stage: In 18th-century Venice, Quick says, "daily life itself was theater. There were masks, costumes, and intrigue for much of the year." Anna Maria is based on a real person. Early in the writing process, "I had made up a rival for Anna Maria for first violin. I had named her Chiaretta," Quick remembers, "and made her blind in one eye." Subsequently, "I got my hands on a very obscure piece of scholarship, published by the Vivaldi Institute in Venice, which gave thumbnail biographical sketches of all the female musicians at the Pietà." In it, "I read that Anna Maria was succeeded as first violin by a woman named Chiara, who was blind." Quick calls this her "Twilight Zone moment." (She changed the character's name in a later draft.)

Set in a time when classical music was pretty much the only music enjoyed by intellectuals and people of the upper classes, this novel introduces postmodern American readers to sounds and instruments with which many of us aren't exactly intimate — and those who attend Quick's August 9 reading at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) can hear some for themselves, as live musical accompaniment will be provided by world-renowned local cello prodigy Tessa Seymour. "Good music — whether it's classical or popular — is a window into the heart of the person who wrote it and often the person or people who perform it," Quick says. "It's a direct, unmediated experience of someone else's emotional reality, whether rapture or sorrow. And it helps us recognize and — can I say honor? — our own strongest, most authentic feelings. Anything that cracks our hearts open is terribly important, I think, in this world in which we're all so emotionally barricaded. It's the same thing with a good book," says this author of several volumes, including the award-winning novel Northern Edge. "If it makes you laugh and cry, even if there's [only] one image in the book that you know you'll carry with you for the rest of your life, well, then that book has succeeded as a work of art, I think. Art strips away everything that's unimportant and makes us remember what matters." 4 p.m. MrsDalloways.com


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