“Lulu” by Adrienne Celt, recommended by Tara Ison
Issue No. 167
AN INTRODUCTION BY TARA ISON
“My mother could be as great as I wanted her to be, sometimes. When she wanted it, too…”
Adrienne Celt’s debut novel, The Daughters, is a lyrical, multi-generational history of folklore and enchantment, selfless sacrifice and bitter, binding love. In this gorgeous excerpt, a mother and young daughter venture forth on a gold-bright afternoon. The destination: the Chicago Civic Opera House, to see an underground production of the legendary opera Lulu, whose amoral heroine juggles lovers and lives, seduces and destroys. The little girl—herself called Lulu, named for the character by her opera-loving mother—is intoxicated by the glittering day, by the spell her mother weaves of their own hidden beauty and power; “Let’s pretend we’re orphans,” she suggests. But not just regular orphans—magical, royal orphans: “This will be our first time out in the world in our new clothes, and no one will recognize us.” The train to the city is a royal carriage; the blind man singing to himself, the mother assures, is the royal madrigal, able to see their greatness through the sound of their voices; she joins him in triumphant harmony. Mother and daughter’s sweeping entrance to the theater is admission to a world of transcendent, fantastical secrets. They are given seats, given champagne; all is kisses and handholding, exquisite possibility, everyone performing their role to perfection. Child Lulu is in love with this bubbly new experience, with the illuminated red cloth heart the opera’s Lulu wears pinned to her dress, with her own loving, operatically glamorous mother. And we are in love with it all as well, thanks to Celt’s exquisite literary spell.
But as child Lulu is increasingly enthralled by her counterpart’s story and song (“My mother was magical, but this was more.”), her mother grows restless, derisive and cold, now throwing back whiskey, and her bitterness rises to the surface. A failed singer, she resents her role as spectator and not star; she pulls away when her daughter reaches for her hand, and young Lulu now realizes the bottle of whiskey “she’d waved toward me in the second intermission had solved the long mystery of my mother’s most peculiar perfume.” At the end, opera Lulu’s glowing red cloth heart has turned black, been torn in two, each half pinned to either side of the closing curtain.
The ride home is no longer a royal carriage. But the blind man is still there, on the train; Lulu hopes he may still be their madrigal—won’t he recognize them? Perhaps they should sing him a song? But, no, the spell has been broken, and her mother stalks off without a word. Lulu has no choice but to follow. All is now tarnished, turned cold and dim.
The roles we play, the costumes we wear, the tales we tell each other and ourselves… how else to reconcile our longing for fanciful escape with our desperate need for authentic, of-this-earth affection and love? What I so admire here is Celt’s masterful, insightful depiction of this paradox, her intimate knowledge of the human heart—the breakable beating heart we nevertheless, like young Lulu, keep on displaying, hopefully, to the world.
Author of Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies
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by Adrienne Celt
Excerpted from THE DAUGHTERS
Recommended by Tara Ison
Taking me to the opera was my mother’s last attempt to make me her own. Like everything she does, she went about it in a strange way: not many parents would choose to bring their daughters to witness a tragedy to which they are namesake. But whatever her insufficiencies, my mother understood my sense of pride. She knew that seeing the name Lulu on the tickets would thrill me more than the character’s death would undo me.
The show was a matinee on one of those magical Chicago days that are clear and bright, so the cold doesn’t seem so punishing. Walking outside reddened our noses, and my mother pinched mine with her gloved fingers—I could feel the faint pressure from her long manicured nails beneath the leather.
“Let’s pretend we’re orphans,” she said to me. “Only not really orphans. Children abandoned at birth who discover that they’re really royalty.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “And magic. This will be our first time out in the world in our new clothes, and no one will recognize us. They’ll all be impressed with how pretty and fancy we are, and even people”—her face darkened—“who’ve been terrible to us and shunned us because of our orphanhood will love us and sing our praises. And we’ll be kind to them.” The darkness lifted from her like a cloud in the wind.
We took the O’Hare line to the Loop, then transferred to get to Washington and Wells—it was a long ride, but to us each train was a royal carriage. My mother and I pointed out all the special touches that had been left inside for us: the clean blue pair of seats in a beam of sun, the advertisements for a local jeweler showing pictures of a diamond-studded necklace and bracelet. We might consider getting our tiaras refitted there, we said. If the store had sufficient dignity upon inspection. The other passengers received our scrutinizing attention as well: there was the café owner who’d refused to sell us hot chocolate because the gold coin we’d found to pay with was dirty. Beside her, the spoiled twin girls we always saw in the park whose dresses and hair ribbons threw us into fits of jealousy, which we quelled thanks to our superior breeding.
A blind man with a cane and a threadbare hat sat in the handicapped seats a few feet away from us, and he rocked with the rhythm of the train, singing softly to himself.
“That,” my mother whispered to me, taking off her gloves, “is the royal madrigal. He recognized us for what we were long before anyone else, but he couldn’t tell us for fear of retribution from the evil queen. She wanted to keep us poor and wretched. But she couldn’t fool the madrigal: he sensed our greatness through the sound of our voices. He can tell a prince from a hog farmer by hearing them speak a single word.”
We were quiet, listening to the madrigal sing. He changed tunes after a minute or so, and my mother tilted her head to the side so her long hair fell away from the ear that faced him.
“Well, of course he’d want to honor us with a song.” She raised her eyebrows at me gravely. “Shouldn’t we honor him back?” My mother could be as great as I wanted her to be, sometimes. When she wanted it too.
I nodded, and she put a finger to her lips. Hush. She walked over to where the man sat and placed herself beside him while I watched. Silently. Hushed. At first I couldn’t distinguish the sounds she was making from the man’s singing, so low were the notes and so well intertwined with the music that was already in the air. But as the man raised his voice my mother made hers more audible, and they began to play together: his legato with her crisp stutters, his baritone with her alto-soprano.
The song was sad, but somehow between them it sounded triumphant. Like they’d found one another after a long search. Ended a long loneliness. She bobbed her head as they tossed lines back and forth, trading phrases from “Body and Soul.” I leaned my chin against the cold metal headrest on the back of my seat and watched. The grinding of the train against the tracks rumbled against my jaw as my mother and the man spun the air into an earthy, rasping exultation. They were harmonizing now, and my mother put her clean, beautiful hand on the man’s, which was thick with calluses. I loved her then.
Together, they sang about the spirit and the flesh. Together, until they ran out of words.
As the train pulled up to Washington and Wells, they hummed a few last bars together until the conductor made a scratchy announcement, breaking the spell. I held my mother’s hand and we hopped off onto the wooden platform. The blind man stayed where he was and smiled.
I almost broke into a run towards the front entrance of the Civic Opera House, home of the Chicago Lyric Opera, but my mother snagged the back collar of my dress and pulled me around the building. We approached a side entrance where a man stood smoking in a tuxedo and tails. My mother nudged me.
“The gatekeeper,” she whispered. I had the tickets.
“Hello,” I said to the man. He peered at me through a cloud of smoke that he puffed in and out of his mouth without removing the cigarette. Then he turned to my mother.
“You Jimmy’s friend?”
She nodded and I silently offered up the tickets in my palm. They were delicate slips of paper with careful calligraphy, unlike any theater stubs I’d seen before. The smoking man picked them up and inspected them, smirking.
“This all seems to be in order,” he said. With the gesture of a ringmaster, he extended his arm towards the door, then opened it just slightly so we would have to slip inside. I looked hesitantly at the tickets.
“Are you just going to keep them?” I asked.
I wanted to pin them to the wall beside my bed and teach myself how to write my name in similar sweeps and flourishes. I’d expected an usher to glance at them and hand them back, maybe adding a minuscule tear. But the man in the tuxedo had other plans.
“How right you are,” he said, and removed a lighter from the inside pocket of his jacket. The paper was extremely thin; they were gone almost as soon as the flint in the lighter struck metal.
“Come on, Lulu.” My mother pulled me through the slender entrance by my elbow.
“Oh, Lulu.” The man stayed outside and laughed. “This is the famous little Lulu. Well, it is an honor.” If he said anything else it was lost to me behind the steely slam of the door.