Friday, June 18, 2021

HEARTS AT DAWN – Alysa Salzberg

Hearts at Dawn is a fairy tale told by one of the fairies—or witches, as she tells us, "or some more accurate sort of non-mortal." She doesn't give us her name, possibly out of shame, because, using the witch side of her powers, she once did an "awful awful" thing, and now spends the entire book trying to rally our support in making amends.

Our fairy/witch narrator starts her story recounting a silent duel between her and her mentor, a gorgeous raven-haired beauty who captures the eye of the tall, dark, handsome (of course) Charles Rush whom our storyteller—admittedly plain and with “disaster” hair--had her eye on. Rush and mentor marry, and have a baby boy. Consequently our nameless non-mortal, crushed and maddened with rage, conjures a curse against the child, Orin, that when he turns twelve he will become a monster. And he does.

Elongated hands with claws. “Hooves at his feet, dark fur everywhere, a muzzle overgrown with teeth. . .

“Even in the haze of my anger, I did try to be merciful,” she tells us. “This was only something that would happen at night. . .he could live perfectly normally when it was light.”

And so it comes about. But before this happens, while Orin is still a baby, his father tires of the raven-haired beauty, and she leaves them. Disappears. Charles marries again, this time into a moneyed family, and he and his new bride soon have another son, whom they call Joseph. The half-brothers grow up to be pals, and, when Orin is 24, they move to Paris. Their father, Charles, had wondered if his first wife had bewitched him. Visits to doctors and mystics, however, provide to clue to Orin’s nighttime monsterhood. He and Joseph hope to find their mother in the City of Lights, and possibly an antidote for Orin’s curse. The two take separate suites in the Grand Hôtel, but see each other daily. Orin spends his nights alone in his room studying books that might shed some light on what he now understands must be a curse. He’s a half-time werewolf, it seems, and a mild-mannered one, at that. He’s learned by now a half truth: that the way to undo the curse is to fall in love. As our narrator read in an ancient tome, “Give your heart to another and have their heart. Love and be truly loved.” In a form not visible or audible to Orin, she can only hope to communicate with him by calling upon another witch, which she does, but chooses one who bungles the job. Yet, even had the “madwoman” gotten it right.

Orin’s main obstacle is a fear of getting romantic with anyone. Far as he knows his condition doesn’t include violent tendencies, but how can he be sure? We see him fall in love the instant he sees his neighbor, who runs a photography studio on the same floor as his room. But he avoids her. Uses formal French to address her, instead of her name, and turning or walking away after a brief, polite exchange.

Their first meeting occurred in front of Claire’s studio, near the room he was about take. Claire had just stepped in the hallway. “A woman with a messy chignon. . . short in stature, with a pleasantly proportioned, somewhat generous figure.” Her laugh while talking with a customer in the doorway charmed him. “An extraordinary laugh, a perfect kind of joyful music.” Yet, whether or not he even knew her first name, he continued addressing her, “Mademoiselle Turin,” each time tickling her perplexity button the more:

Claire was standing in the hallway by her studio door. She stared straight at him, her eyes meeting his. Transfixed by fear, Orin stared back at her for a moment. In the woman’s eyes, there wasn’t fear at all, only perplexity and revulsion.” Over the next days she begins peeking through his keyhole at night. A pretty smart cookie, she eventually figures things out, but continues discreetly pursuing her curiosity and arguing with herself that OK, she loves him, but what about this monster business at night? No partying, no strolling the boulevards. She understands the absurd chill, and he’s kind and nonviolent. She couldn’t love him if he were, she knows. But would he trust her to be with him at night? Would he even share his terrible secret? She also had never found love before. Until now.

Complementing this suspense-building, incrementally advancing fairytale romance is its setting. It is Paris, but it’s the mid-19th century Paris under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. Food goes scarce, forcing people to stand in breadlines for hours. Many start killing rats for the meat. Not even household pets are safe if they’re caught outdoors. Cats being the most vulnerable because of their independent nature, the Grand Hôtel’s resident feline, Hippolyte, has Claire and other residents worried. I won’t risk a spoiler here to even hint at how Orin steps up and gets Hippolyte, out of Paris to Claire’s brother and his family where they live relatively safe from catibalism. Everyone knows Orin is now Claire’s hero, but the two still keep a tentative distance between them. She pretends she doesn’t know his secret, and he continues to call her “Mademoiselle Turin.”

Author Alysa Salzberg acknowledges she’d always been intrigued by the classic Beauty and the Beast fairytale, but doing a modern version wasn’t her first intention. But browsing in Paris’s Bibliothèque Drouot, she came upon a book about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussion War. Despite being a Paris resident, and a writer for many years, she admits being only vaguely familiar with that episode in French history. She found the book fascinating reading, and then started writing about it.

Alysa Salzberg

I learned so much from it, but what stayed with me most strongly was what a weird time that four months was if you were living in Paris. And then, somehow that thought twined itself around a story that’s always floating through my head, my favorite story: Beauty and the Beast.

Are the endings the same? Similar? A modern twist? I cannot honestly say, as I’m not familiar enough with the classic version, nor have I seen the Disney animation--or any of the film or theatrical productions.


I do know how Hearts at Dawn ends. A suggestion: read this review again as close to midnight as you can, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the answer. Or you can ask Google right now!


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