... marvelous ... wonderfully embellishes the world through which Satie wandered like some kind of marooned alien visitor ... Bohemian Paris is the setting of a lot of romantic kitsch, but not here. The art is real but so is the squalor, and usually, Ms. Horrocks suggests, the latter defeats the former ... It’s the family and friends who give breadth and dimension to this novel...Their stories ground The Vexations in the realm of ordinary mortal travail.
Deprived of the element of surprise, Horrocks instead wrings drama from her method of narration ... Crucially, Louise tells her story in the first person, and Horrocks’s novel is at its most vivid when inhabiting her voice ... Little else in the novel is as enthralling as Louise’s intelligence ... The chapters devoted to Erik are the least psychologically involving; and much of the balance of the novel is concerned with characters who profess ignorance of music in general ... moments of musical insight are far too few. Eager to challenge conventional notions of genius in a society in which men’s talents were nurtured at the expense of women’s, Horrocks is attuned to the possibility that Louise might have made equal or greater contributions to culture if only she’d been given more opportunities and encouragement. But in The Vexations, Louise is effectively sidelined for long stretches, and clever as it is, Horrocks’s belated revelation about why she has structured her novel this way cannot make up for the many pages in which readers have been deprived of its most musical voice.
Horrocks turns what could have been a maudlin retelling into a heartbreakingly beautiful novel about the sacrifices people make for what they hold dear. Readers need not be familiar with composer Erik Satie (1866–1925) to appreciate his story, but many will feel compelled to seek out recordings of his music after reading this book.
Horrocks shines as she renders the Montmartre demimonde in Day-Glo colors, as provocative as a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas. Deftly she plumbs the singular zeal — and occasional neuroses — that drive artists toward achievement as well as self-destruction ... In the second half, the novel’s tension slackens: The decades roll on predictably as Horrocks slips into a formulaic groove that traces the composer’s later years, although cameos from Jean Cocteau and Claude Debussy add sparkle...Fortunately, an elderly Louise rescues the drifting narrative ... Feisty to the end, she remembers her brother’s youthful triumph, a coda to the grand themes that The Vexations explores with grace and conviction.
As a title, The Vexations befits a novel about the uncompromising genius of a man who by the end of his life appears to have alienated everyone he cared about. However, if this makes it sound like Satie is Horrocks’ unique focus that would be misleading. The Vexations contains a richly arranged cast of characters, all of whom rub up against each other in the streets, cabarets and cafés of Montmartre, Paris, on the cusp of the 20th century. Most vivid among these are Satie’s younger sister Louise and brother Conrad ... Louise’s victory is her sanity ... It is matched by Horrocks’ gliding prose, which scatters grace notes on every page ... Horrocks’ version of Satie, despite or perhaps because of his many failings, emerges as a strangely heroic figure.
What’s most extraordinary about The Vexations is the writing itself. There is the risk with historical fiction that the research will be heavy-handed, to the dilution of story. Horrocks’s vast knowledge of French history and classical music is on display, but the bounty of information never overwhelms. She distinguishes her writing style, using contemporary prose sprinkled with contractions, which allows a more accessible entryway into this bygone era. Her language is lyrical and captivating...The novel reads like a finely composed piece of music, swiftly interweaving winsome sentences with period details and the characters who lived them ... The Vexations presents itself as a window into a textured past made real and tangible for the reader ... The novel’s ending, narrated by Louise, is what makes The Vexations as extraordinary as Erik himself. Louise closes by centering completely on his genius. Every sentence Horrocks writes is a stepping-stone to this apex, and satisfying to such a degree that the reader will have the urge to close the book and begin listening to Satie’s music.
A beautifully melancholic tone permeates this finely written debut novel ... Erik’s story looks beyond the 'tortured genius' stereotype to something more nuanced and real, while both Louise and painter Suzanne Valadon, Erik’s one-time companion, personify different aspects of being a woman alone. The bleakness of the themes of loneliness, family separation, and thwarted expectations sits in counterpoise to several couples’ deep love and the creativity that produces innovative art.
Contemporary fiction has a rich vein of women writers exploring the bravado of male artists in order to demonstrate the limits it imposes. This proves an effective way to undermine the myth of male genius; rather than condemn the trope outright, these novelists complicate it until it crumbles ... By writing her male virtuoso from the inside and outside, Horrocks creates a wrenching portrait of overconfidence as a destructive force ... Reading The Vexations, I often thought about its predecessor, Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which offers a brighter telling of a similar story. Whereas Horrocks writes her boy genius’s life as a tragedy, Fitzgerald approaches her protagonist’s early years as comedy ... Fitzgerald’s method beautifully reverses the sad trajectory on which Horrocks—working within biography—sets Satie. Fritz buys into the myth of male genius, but his family teases him and prods him out of it. They push him to grow up, which no character in The Vexations does for Erik. Comparing the two men underscores the hazard in Erik’s commitment to himself as an artist. He picks art over humanity, and despite his work’s lasting musical importance, he ends the novel with no audience at all.
Long stretches of The Vexations read like a prose version of a Satie composition — choppy, evocative, unexpected ... builds to a devastating conclusion, but it’s worth the pain for this unusual, quietly beautiful meditation on the work and strife behind art that has endured for generations.
Horrocks paints an atmospheric portrait of bohemian Paris and a poignant one of Satie and his avant-garde circle ... Erik’s story takes longer to engage readers, but gradually his austere passion and fierce dedication to his music become as affecting as Louise’s catalog of pain and deprivation ... Finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration.
... vivid, hard-edged ... Horrocks shines while envisioning Erik scoring a silent film, debuting a masterpiece, or being released from jail (where he was held for defaming a reviewer) so he can complete a commission. Horrocks’s description of Satie’s music is also apt for her noteworthy novel: slow, spare, and at its best finely filigreed.