Erik Satie begins life with every possible advantage. But after the dual blows of his mother's early death and his father's breakdown upend his childhood, Erik and his younger siblings are scattered. Later, as an ambitious young composer, Erik flings himself into the Parisian art scene, aiming for greatness but achieving only notoriety. As the years, then decades, pass, he alienates those in his circle as often as he inspires them, lashing out at friends and lovers like Claude Debussy and Suzanne Valadon.
... 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.