I’m so excited to be part of my friend Mary Sharratt’s blog tour for her book Ecstasy, which has one of the best covers I’ve ever seen. Mary and I met through the Historical Novel Society when we were on a panel together on women in history at the 2017 conference.
Ecstasy tells the story the relatively unknown Alma Mahler, a composer who would become the wife of famed composer Gustav Mahler. Alma was a woman ahead of her time (1879-1964), one who insisted on educating herself and working as a composer, even as all the women around her, including her sister, were doing the societally-acceptable thing and getting married. But through them, Alma witnessed that she would be forced to give up her dreams and so resolved to devote herself to music. Unfortunately, as any reader of women’s history or female historical fiction can tell you, such independent thinking – especially prior to the last few decades – rarely resulted in happiness for the woman.
If there is one idea to sum up Alma’s life and Sharratt’s book, it is that if Alma didn’t have bad luck with men, she wouldn’t have any at all. Before Alma even marries, one can see that she is desperate to find love and so has a tendency to adore the men who catch her fancy, an all-encompassing adulation that can only lead to ruin. As a result, her story – through no fault of Sharratt’s – often feels like watching a moth flit from one candle flame to the next, if only to find out how badly it will get burned this time.
As I reader, I wanted to shake Alma. Even I could see that she would have been better off with impoverished Alexander von Zemlinsky, than the rake Gustav Klimt (her first kiss) or any of her husbands, especially Gustav Mahler, on whom the balance of the book focuses. Alexander was the only one who truly respected Alma’s talent and would have allowed her to continue composing. While their relationship had its share of troubles – not the least of which was her family’s opposition to him being poor and Jewish – it was Alma being dazzled by Mahler, an older, womanizing star composer that killed her chance at happiness. (How many of us have been there? Those bad boys might be pretty, but they are also trouble.) She didn’t like his music, wasn’t inspired by him and knew he was controlling, yet she married him anyway, like so many other women in times when marriage was a requirement. The irony is that he was also Jewish and was known to be in debt. But yet, her parents allowed the relationship, albeit reluctantly.
Sharratt does an excellent job of portraying the misogyny of the period, especially as shown through Mahler. The only historical fiction portrayal that irritated me more was Marie Benedict’s Albert Einstein in The Other Einstein. I consider any strong feelings that I experience – especially loathing a character – a compliment to the author and a sign of his/her talent. Sharrat does not pull her punches. Mahler has the audacity to lay out to Alma exactly what he expects of her as a wife, demanding that she give up her own composing and “regard my music as your music (127)” and saying she “must become the person I need if we are to be happy together. My wife and not my colleague” (127).
The very traits which Sharratt uses to make Alma a historically accurate character make her also maddening for a modern reader. In her relationship with Mahler, she vacillates between being adoringly googly-eyed at her husband and feeling unworthy of his greatness (she almost acts like a victim of emotional abuse) and railing at him quite rightly for the injustices of the way he mistreats her. I think this is not only a personality trait, but a reflection of the times in which Alma lived. It seems like every time she is nearly brave enough to act as an independent woman, she recoils into the shell of the obedient housefrau that society expects. For all of her modern thinking, Alma has very little self-esteem, which is reinforced by Mahler, her parents and society at every turn. At one point she thinks to herself, “My only hope of distinguishing myself, of doing something truly remarkable, is by marrying a great man and sharing in his destiny” (131) and at another, Sharrat’s narration tells us, “Since she couldn’t find her way back to her old self, she would allow Gustav to shape her into a better self” – both thoughts inconceivable to my modern, feminist mind.
As a tale of what one woman endured and was willing to sacrifice for love, this book is a great read. It will be of particular enjoyment to fans of opera and classical music of the period, especially that produced in Vienna. Not knowing much about either, many of the references went over my head and I wonder how much richness I missed by not having the proper education to fully appreciate the book.
Ecstasy tells only a portion of Alma’s life, but her luck didn’t seem to improve any after Mahler’s death. In her Author’s Note, Sharratt writes that at after Mahler, Alma “made good on her aspiration for an independent life,” but not necessarily a happy one. She married two more times, but had affairs during each marriage, which says to me her bad luck with men and her desperate search for love continued throughout her life. I have to wonder how different Alma’s life would have been had she lived now, in a society that allowed and encouraged her to make her own choices, to be exactly what she wanted, with or without a man.
Join me here tomorrow for an interview with Mary Sharratt. Don’t forget to scroll down to the end of the post for a chance to win a paperback copy of the book.
by Mary Sharratt
Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover & eBook; 400 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary
In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era.
Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees? In Ecstasy, Mary Sharratt finally gives one of the most controversial and complex women of her time center stage.
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?
Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.
Available in Hardcover & eBook:
Also in AudioBook:
Praise for Ecstasy
“In ECSTASY, Mary Sharratt plunges the reader into the tumultuous and glamorous fin de siècle era, bringing to life its brilliant and beguiling leading lady. Finally, Alma Mahler takes center stage, surging to life as so much more than simply the female companion to the brilliant and famous men who loved her. Sharratt’s portrait is poignant and nuanced, her novel brimming with rich historic detail and lush, evocative language.” – Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress
“A tender, intimate exploration of a complicated woman, Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY renders in exquisitely researched detail and fiercely imagined scenes the life of Alma Mahler — daughter, wife, mother, lover, and composer — and the early 20th Century Vienna and New York in which she came of age. I loved this inspiring story of an early feminist standing up for her art.” – Meg Waite Clayton, New York Times bestselling author of The Race for Paris
“Evocative and passionate, ECSTASY illuminates through its tempestuous and talented heroine a conundrum that resonates across the centuries: how a woman can fulfill her destiny by being both a lover and an artist.” – Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“Mary Sharratt makes a triumphant return to the page with this masterful portrait of Alma Mahler, the wife of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. Set in a time and place when a woman could only hope to be the power behind the throne, Sharratt brings a meticulously researched and richly illuminated account of a young woman who was a brilliant composer in her own right. Alma may have had to suppress her own talents to support Mahler; however, ECSTASY reveals that she was a woman who “contained multitudes.” ECSTASY is an important work of historical fiction, as well as a timely and topical addition to the canon of knowledge that needs to better represent important women and their contributions.” – Pamela Klinger-Horn, Excelsior Bay Books
“Alma Mahler’s unexpected, often heartbreaking journey from muse to independence comes to vivid, dramatic life in Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY. Sharratt skillfully evokes turn-of-the-century Vienna and the musical genius of the era, returning Alma to her rightful place in history as both the inspiration to the men in her life and a gifted artist in her own right.” – C.W. Gortner, bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel
“Mary Sharratt has more than done justice to one of the most interesting, shocking, and passionate women of the 20th century. Overflowing with life and lust, ECSTASY explores this flawed but fascinating woman who was not only muse but a genius in her own right.” – New York Times Bestseller, M.J. Rose
“A deeply affecting portrait of the woman rumored to be the most notorious femme fatale of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY is as heartbreaking and seductive as Alma Mahler herself.” —Kris Waldherr, author of Doomed Queens and Bad Princess
About the Author
MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.
Her novels include Summit Avenue, The Real Minera, The Vanishing Point, The Daughters of Witching Hill, Illuminations, and The Dark Lady’s Mask.
During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a paperback copy of Ecstasy! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.