"Aria" by Susan Segal
Novel chosen and edited by Alexandra Shelley for Bridge Works. Author's first published novel.
Isn't celebrity born out of tragedy always less desirable than that resulting from achievement? Segal's exceptional debut suggests that fame wanted or not takes its toll no matter how it is acquired. Eve Miller is the lone survivor of a shipwreck. Her adventurous husband, Charlie, had convinced her to take their young children, Nick and Jessica, sailing around the world. All went well until a mystery vessel struck their yacht, and her family was swept away by the sea, one by one, until only she remained. When Eve wakes up in an Australian hospital, she berates herself for having the will to survive, for clinging to the lifeboat when she had three very good reasons to let herself slip into the sea, too. During her physical rehabilitation, her worried mother and sister desperately wish to bring her home to California, and hospital employees try to shield her from the media. Meanwhile, aging opera diva Isabel Stein, who is on tour down under, and her savvy agent-husband, Leo, offer Eve a haven in their guest cottage on a secluded estate outside of New York City. Overwhelmed by guilt, paparazzi and bags of well-intentioned "fan" mail, Eve overlooks her suspicions of the Steins' generosity and accepts their invitation. She grows to trust her hosts and develops a friendship with their other temporary houseguest, young composer Noah Stewart, who is writing an opera for Isabel, but her sanctuary is short-lived. With razor-sharp insight and adroit imagery, Segal masterfully builds layers of tension by methodically exposing her tragically flawed characters' true motives. Most compelling is Eve's dynamic narration, initially pianissimo and controlled, crescendoing to a climactic forte.
This cautionary tale is a parable of one woman's tragedy and the nearly total invasion of privacy that results. For two years, Eve Miller and her family have been sailing around the world until a fishing boat collides with their vessel and splits it in two. The sole survivor, Eve is rescued and taken to a hospital in Sydney, Australia, to recover from her injuries. The newspapers and TV stations hungrily tear into Eve's story, and though the nurses try to shield her from the daily barrage of media reports, they cannot stop these reports from being written or aired. Nor can they stop others from following them, in particular a woman named Isabel Stein, an opera singer recovering from minor throat surgery in the same hospital. Isabel offers her country home to Eve as a place in which to recuperate and hide away. Not wanting to return to her mother's home in California, Eve accepts the offer. But the opera star's underlying motives are not as unselfish and humanitarian as they first appeared. The characters in Segal's haunting, beautifully written first novel are fully realized, vibrant, and believable. Highly recommended for contemporary fiction collections.
Short-story writer Segal's first novel-while an astute study of the internal chaos resulting from a shipwreck survivor's effort to recover from the loss of her entire family-also offers a few less-appealing manipulative turns. The collision between her family's yacht and a Russian fishing boat off the coast of Australia landed Eve in the hospital with a back injury and too much time to think about her dead husband, son, and daughter. Out of nowhere comes an aging diva, who just happens to offer a guest cottage at her place in upstate New York where Eve can recover away from the prying eyes of the press who have sensationalized her story. Brava! And the deal comes with a brooding young composer, Noah, in residence to complete an opera that will ensure the diva's lasting fame. As months pass Eve and Noah find a tentative peace, and she heals enough that she can accept a lucrative book deal. Eventually, the jealous diva stirs up trouble and the idyll ends, but not before Eve has begun to write the story of what she lost at sea. Most everything to do with Eve's emotional state rings poignantly true, but the cardboard characters surrounding her ensures that she won't escape the conventions of melodrama.