Body for Two

What would happen if a young Brooklyn lawyer was suddenly possessed by a legend?

Never mind the narrator--imagine the shock poor Franz Schubert must have felt upon waking after a couple hundred years to find his fingers turned soft, his nails polished red and himself playing his own compositions over a view of a pair of chi-chis that could "destroy weak men and lay the mighty low."

Tucsonan Bonnie Marson's debut novel doesn't slip unobtrusively onto the stage.

In Sleeping With Schubert, a 31-year-old Brooklyn lawyer fond of shopping and currently boyfriend-deprived gets possessed by the 18th-century composer. It happens suddenly--at the white piano near the shoe department in Nordstrom. In a little "'Cathy' Does Kafka," narrator Liza Durbin finds herself juggling job, family, friends and boyfriend as she attempts to accommodate not only fingers that can make astounding music on their own, but also this second person inside her skin.

When Liza feels the urge to commandeer the glossy white grand (the color, too, must have been a fright to Franz), her father bears witness, so there's no hiding this metamorphosis--and she has like-it-or-not family support. Liza soon finds herself too distracted to pursue normal life. Losing track of time, suddenly aware of every strain of music around her, she shows up to work in bedroom slippers and answers the door in a wetsuit ... if any garment at all. After trying to rush the stage at a piano recital, she is pressured by good friend Fred to "see someone," so she consults therapist Mikki Kloster. Mikki--therapist to all of Liza's circle, a "friend" who knows all the dirt--first recommends a psych evaluation, but when she hears Liza play, she becomes a believer, as does anyone within earshot. Suddenly, everyone begins hatching schemes to capitalize on Liza's "inhabitation"--some more self-serving than others.

Carnegie Hall, a national tour and a return to Europe seem in the works, and some struggle for dominant personality is inevitable.

Marson has populated her novel with a cast of likable, if sketchily drawn, characters (sketchy is forgivable; it's comedic): shoe-hound Aunt Frieda; Fred (of whom Liza says, "We agreed we could marry, assuming neither of us ever wanted sex again"); yoga-taut Mom; retired sporting goods-shop owner Dad; and "career princess" and irrepressible Bronx-girl-gone-way-uptown sister Cassie. It's Liza's story, and she emerges as a well-developed and appealing character. The novel is enlivened by her voice--altogether New York, self-deprecating, Jewish wry--and layered (if not weirded) by Schubert's.

While Liza and Schubert cannot speak to one another directly--neither, after all, knows the other's language--Marson records Schubert's thoughts at the end of each chapter, so you have a sense, too, of his odyssey.

As a reader, it's tempting to try to identify personal connections in a work by a local writer. A Nonie's restaurant, for example, finds its way into the New York setting; a character whose name is identical to that of a friend listed in Marson's acknowledgements gets rewarded (she lands the man); and does anybody out there know a Paul B. Sunshine who deserves a spanking?

It's beach-/pool-/cabin-read season, and that makes Sleeping With Schubert timely. It's an undemanding, funny, musically themed (but not classical-heavy) romance that asks you only to play along ... and overlook an exaggerated scene or two.

It won't ruin the book to reveal that Liza does get to debut at Carnegie Hall. Oh-so-serious Julliard piano teacher Greta arranges it, but oh-so-flamboyant Cassie sexes it up. With splashy, décolleté ads; the media blitzed; blocks of seats purchased for complimentary distribution; and everyone on Cassie's considerable social lists enlisted, it can't help being a spectacle. That promotion--a work of art in itself--is not altogether unlike the publication of Sleeping With Schubert. Paramount has already purchased the movie rights to it; an accompanying CD is coming out (Sony Classical--it gets its own product promotion in the novel); and a Web site is up--complete with sound; historical background on Schubert and the novel; and a bio on Ms. Marson, who also creates graphic and ceramic art. OK, maybe the production's a little over the top, but in this day of consolidation, a whole industry can spring full-blown from a creator's head.

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