Friday, February 27, 2015

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Monotonous melody
The Song of the Lark, originally published in 1915, is the second novel in Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, coming after O Pioneers! and before My Ántonia. This book bears little resemblance to those other two novels, begging the question whether the trilogy is really a trilogy at all. The story does not take place on the prairie, but mostly in the deserts of Colorado and Arizona. Later it moves on to urban locales and becomes the sort of big-city drama that Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser might have written. I absolutely loved O Pioneers!, which makes it all the more disappointing to report that I found The Song of the Lark rather dull and lifeless.

When we first meet Thea Kronborg, she is 11 years old. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she resides in the small town of Moonstone, Colorado. The general consensus among the townsfolk is that Thea is brighter and more intelligent than her local peers and is destined for great things. She is a talented pianist and practices diligently to perfect her craft. In her later teen years she begins taking on students of her own. The book follows the progression of her musical career and her struggle to become not just a professional musician but a true artist.

Cather is known for her depictions of rural and small-town life. As a setting, Moonstone is certainly not without its charms, but compared to the locales of other Cather novels it’s neither as realistic nor as inviting. She seems hell-bent on populating her Colorado town with a host of real “characters,” and she devotes way too much effort to delineating all their peculiar personal quirks. Too her credit, however, the depiction of small-town life in this book is at times refreshingly less than positive. For the purpose of the story, Moonstone is to some extent a prison from which the heroine must escape. One interesting touch is that 12-year-old Thea has a 30-year-old boyfriend who’s just waiting for her to come of age so he can take her as his bride.

O Pioneers! was written in beautifully understated prose. In very few words Cather expressed some truly profound insights into human nature. The Song of the Lark, on the other hand, is needlessly and tediously verbose, belaboring every point it makes. In O Pioneers!, Cather did so much with so little. Here she does so little with so much. After sitting through the umpteenth music lesson or yet another interminable dinner conversation, the reader begins to feel like he’s reading the same chapters over and over again. Early in the story Cather goes to great lengths setting up Thea to be the ultimate independent woman, so when a man finally enters her life it ends up being a major disappointment. It’s difficult to see what exactly she sees in the guy, because every time he shows up in the narrative he’s a harbinger of boredom. The stiff, unrealistic dialog prevents the reader from identifying or sympathizing with the main characters, as does the fact that they all seem to carry on this strange, sexless existence for decades. Early in the story I really cared about Thea and rooted for her to achieve the success she deserves, but by the end of the book I couldn’t care less about her. The epilogue is one of the book’s more moving passages, primarily because Thea is largely absent from it.

Cather is a great writer, but this is not a great book. If it didn’t have her name on the title page it would be virtually indistinguishable from a host of other mediocre melodramas published during this era.

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