Diva by Daisy Goodwin review – a novelisation of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis’s tumultuous affair | Fiction

Diva by Daisy Goodwin review – a novelisation of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis’s tumultuous affair | Fiction

It’s more than 100 years since the birth of Greek-American soprano Maria Callas, and still no one in the opera world has rivalled her. Equally resilient is her reputation as a prima donna whose offstage dramas overshadowed her onstage triumphs.

Daisy Goodwin’s fourth novel reasserts Callas’s devotion to her craft, depicting a deeply serious artist whose life is lived in service to her prodigious gift. Until, that is, she meets Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis.

Their turbulent love affair frames a narrative that begins when they first cross paths at a high society gathering in Venice in 1959, and ends shortly after Onassis betrays her by marrying Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. Flashbacks capture a series of exploitative relationships – with a gossip columnist friend, with her decades-older husband/manager, and with the controlling mother who never loved her.

“No one cared what was best for Maria, just for Callas,” the singer rues. It helps explain why, after a missed top note reminds her that no voice can last for ever, she succumbs to the predatory advances and “foxy sheen” of Onassis. An unrepentant philistine, he cares nothing for opera, but does he truly care for the woman herself or is she just another trophy? Goodwin is on the side of the cynics.

The novel’s pacing matches its heroine’s drive. It’s strong on dialogue and delights in descriptions of haute couture gowns and bedazzling jewellery. However, like Callas herself, it’s at its strongest on stage, conjuring the trance-like rigours and transcendent thrills of performances around the world, including her final operas – Norma in Paris and Tosca in London.

Goodwin admits to having taken “dramatic licence” in her rendering of Callas’s life, and she’s sanitised it, too, omitting references to drug abuse and some of the most toxic aspects of her codependency with Onassis, unbreakable even after he humiliated her. Instead, Diva focuses on how heartache deepens Callas’s artistry and, once her singing career is over, shows a woman finally finding her own true (speaking) voice, and with it liberation and fresh opportunities.

It’s fiction, of course, but who wouldn’t wish that ending for a talent so great she was known simply as La Divina?

Diva by Daisy Goodwin is published by Aria (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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