From the moment she hears Lev's violin for the first time, Attlee is captivated. Told that it is an Italian instrument named for its former Russian owner, and eager to discover all she can about the stories contained within its delicate wooden body, she sets out for its birthplace, Cremona, once the hometown of famous luthier Antonio Stradivari. It's the beginning of a beguiling journey, the conclusion of which she could never have anticipated. I loved and admired this enthralling new book from the author of The Land Where Lemons Grow.
It’s a testament to Attlee’s skill as a storyteller that she uses her trip to Cremona to construct a more elegant and ambitious narrative. What starts out as a biography of a single instrument soon gives way to a broader discussion about politics and economics. Each time Attlee learns a lesson about the violin in question, she finds an excuse for historical digression. The fact that Lev’s violin is made from Alpine spruce, for example, might have passed by as a minor detail. Instead, she uses this revelation to justify a lengthy discussion about forestry regulations in Habsburg Europe and how they pre-empted modern environmentalism.
Later the tone darkens, as Attlee traces the effect on Cremonese violins of the massive displacements of people brought on by war. “Sometimes they were among the swag of looting armies, sometimes among the forlorn heaps of possessions piled on the railway stations of concentration camps.” In the final chapters the sun comes out again, but it’s now the sun of Rostov-on-Don, where she meets the couple at whose wedding Lev played 40 years earlier. Attlee tells the story in easy, luminous prose, infused with a deep understanding for the way human value accrues mysteriously in things, and in the act of making them. Priceless or not, any violin, including Lev’s, is supremely valuable to whoever loves it.