The Vexations -- Caitlin Horrocks

Staff Pick

Fittingly, Horrocks’s elegant and musical novel opens with questions about a key. A door key, to be sure, but the resonance of additional meanings is typical of Horrocks’s skilled and meticulous writing. A story of art and ambition in the golden age of Montmartre, the narrative is told from the perspective of the composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), his siblings, the painter Suzanne Valadon, and a Spanish poet based on J. P. Contamine de Latour. Louise, Erik’s sister, is the only first-person voice; speaking from 1940s Buenos Aires, she unites and completes the others’ chapters, giving an engaging and textured account of a family both blessed by talent and scarred by loss. Erik, desperate to break out of the cabaret scene and into real fame, sets the tone for the siblings’ frustration, but all the characters feel like failures, whether at art or parenting or both. Louise and Suzanne face the additional burden of sexist mores and laws, with the widowed Louise required to petition the court for legal guardianship of her son—which can be revoked at any time. Horrocks demonstrates a sure mastery of her material while skillfully using historical and biographical details to bring her characters to life. Erik, emotionally repressed and needy, cryptically brilliant, confounds friends and strangers alike with his social awkwardness, hoarding, and “gaunt melodies.” His brother Conrad, a chemist, works for a parfumerie but can’t find a way to turn grief into a scent that will comfort the citizens of wartime Paris. Suzanne bridles at the market’s disdain for her “difficult” paintings and struggles to help her son manage his drinking and his own, more successful, artistic career. The novel is full of magnificent set pieces, especially a tense and thrilling account of a performance by Aristide Bruant, with a hapless Erik as his accompanist. Dramatizing the book’s themes of power, desire, and manipulation, the scene is unforgettable.

The Vexations Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316316910
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Little, Brown and Company - July 30th, 2019

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