Fans of Paulette Jiles’s News of the World will be delighted — and perhaps a little disappointed — by the author’s seventh book. With her previous novel, Jiles delivered a near-perfect historical novel of compressed lyricism and masterly storytelling about the itinerant adventures of the septuagenarian widower Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd ... It’s a breathtaking book ... With Simon the Fiddler, Jiles taps a secondary character, the redheaded Simon Boudlin from News of the World, and opens up the narrative folds of his personal saga, jumping back a few years in time.... As with her other novels, Jiles is in command of this historical milieu, evoking her scenes and characters with precision and detail ... During its finer moments, Jiles’s new book calls to mind one of my favorite books by Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, about an opera singer who is transformed by her talent, ambition and determination. Like Cather, Jiles deftly animates landscapes — both internal and external — as well as those hard-to-portray moments when making music and performing for others leads to true self-contentment. The reader is treated to a kind of alchemy on the page when character, setting and song converge at all the right notes, generating an authentic humanity that is worth remembering and celebrating.
... endearing ... sweeter than Jiles’s previous work but no less attentive to the texture of the American Southwest ... if you understand how a romantic quest works, you know the conclusion is already locked and loaded. And if the plot of Simon the Fiddler unfolds at a fairly leisurely trot, well, at least it’s never anything less than thoroughly charming. And when the final battle royal arrives in San Antonio, it’s just the rousing ballad we want to hear.
Imbued with the dust, grit, and grime of Galveston at the close of the Civil War, Simon the Fiddler immerses readers in the challenges of Reconstruction. Jiles...brings her singular voice to the young couple’s travails, her written word as lyrical and musical as Simon’s bow raking over his strings. Loyal Jiles readers and fans of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014), and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008) will adore the author’s latest masterpiece.
Jiles has produced a classic Western adventure tale, with plenty of terse male dialogue and lush natural description ... Simon and Doris (the governess) both romanticize their circumstances (as 19th-century Westerners often did) but Jiles’ detailed depictions of poverty and hazards provide a counterbalance ... Jiles illustrates the cosmic dimension of music, its ability to create unity among disparate people 'who listened to the phrases of melody that somehow fitted together as constellations fit together far away in the deeps of space, shining over the Gulf.'
It must be said that this love affair, whose course serves as the book’s plot, is ludicrously melodramatic, not to say sappy ... Colonel Webb, the lovers’ nemesis and villain of the piece, is as blackguardly as Snidely Whiplash ... Fortunately, there is a vast stretch of Texas territory to traverse before the love birds meet again, and this is where Ms. Jiles excels. Her description of Simon and Doris traveling on separate journeys across the Texas landscape is superb, causing us to feel the elation and sense of possibility that rises in the hearts of man, woman and beast in setting out on the road ... On a grimmer note, but with equal adeptness, Ms. Jiles shows the dismal aftermath of the Civil War in Texas, especially in towns ... All this is powerful, but the novel as a whole lacks the rigor and command of News of the World.
Jiles’ sparse but lyrical writing is a joy to read ... There are plots and schemes and scrapes, and above it all, music. It’s right there in the title, and it’s definitely there in the denouement as Jiles’ novel comes to a hopeful conclusion ... a beautifully written book and a worthy follow-up to News of the World.That novel is due in theaters, starring Tom Hanks, later this year (and just in time for the Oscars). Until then, lose yourself in this entertaining tale.
Jiles skillfully brings the Texas landscape to life ... Simon’s interior landscape, however, is lacking. He does not like people, which seems at odds with his career, and he takes his friends for granted. When one of them dies, the reader is told that Simon is upset, but we can’t actually feel it. Simon seems not to fully notice what’s happening around him and rarely feels emotions, which make the reader not feel anything, either ... For the most part, the story is told through Simon’s point of view, but occasionally the author hops into another character’s head just long enough to describe Simon’s appearance or to explain how another character is feeling. This head-jumping deadens the emotional experience; the reading would have been richer had we either remained in Simon’s mind entirely or else been given more time with others ... Simon’s primary goal throughout the book is to get to (and wed) Doris, despite never having had a real conversation with her. And he assumes she’ll love him in return. Such a lopsided crush feels insufficient to propel an entire novel ... While there are episodic conflicts throughout Simon’s travels, none is big enough to make the reader worry that he might fail ... Some elements of the setting and time period are touched on only briefly, which is also a shame. The months and years after the Civil War and, especially, the unique Texas setting, with its mix of cultures and landscapes, are underexplored ... Tension heightens and the pace picks up when Simon finally reaches San Antonio and Doris, and the relationship actually becomes believable, but it’s too little, too late.
Jiles’ prose style is built on a skillful balance between formal language and events that are sometimes outrageous, sometimes brutal. Her wit is as dry as a West Texas arroyo, and she has a deft way with description, especially of the natural world ... reads a bit like those letters, come from someplace far way and long ago, but full of fresh feeling and beguiling adventure.
The pace picks up and tension rises after Simon reaches San Antonio; there are some menacing moments, but clever plotting has laid the groundwork for a happy ending with just enough hints of potential troubles ahead to remain true to Jiles’ loving but cleareyed portrait of Texas’ vibrant, violent frontier culture. Vividly evocative and steeped in American folkways: more great work from a master storytel
... gritty and richly atmospheric ... Jiles immerses the reader in the sensory details of the era, with special emphasis on the demands and rewards of a ragtag Texas fiddle band. Jiles’s limber tale satisfies with welcome splashes of comedy and romance.