Reviewed by Sara Hodon
You, Fascinating You
by Germaine W. Shames
Pale Fire Press
Paperback: 258 pages, March 24, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0983861201
Much has been written about the hardships faced by the European people and the countless atrocities committed during World War II. While those who committed these unthinkable acts have had to make their own peace with their place in history, the stories of the real people—the innocent victims of powerful leaders—often go untold. In her latest novel, You, Fascinating You, author Germaine Shames shares the tragic real-life love story of a great maestro and a prima ballerina forced to separate because of their respective ethnicities.
Margit Wolf is a young girl bursting with a natural gift for dance and a drive to succeed. But the road to fame and stardom is a long one from her native Budapest, with parents who are neither wealthy nor well-connected politically. Margit resigns herself to reaching her goals with a combination of hard work, determination, and, yes, a bit of luck. She’s sure she’s landed her big break when Pippo Buffarino, a smooth-talking “impresario” compliments her talent and assures her that he can get her to dance on some of the biggest stages in Europe. Thinking she’s finally found the chance she’s been waiting for, Margit, along with a few other ballerinas Buffarino recruits, leaves her home and family for the bright lights and packed houses of Italy and the rest of Europe.
Things don’t quite go as Margit and her friends had envisioned. Rather than dancing in some of the most renowned opera houses in Europe as Buffarino had promised, Margit and her friends are reduced to dancing for pennies in dance halls and third-rate theaters. While Margit tries to save both her self-respect and her dancing career, she falls in love with Maestro Pasquale Frustaci, whom she meets at an opera house in Novara. Although she is initially turned off by his brashness, swagger, and self-importance, eventually Margit finds herself drawn to the talented young composer and maestro, and they later marry.
But real life intervenes, cutting the young couple’s romance short. In 1938, with World War II looming, Mussolini forces all Jews out of Italy, leaving Margit no choice but to flee her adopted country and the life she has built for herself and return to her family in Budapest. But she’s not alone—Margit is carrying the great Frustaci’s child. While separated from her husband, Margit must care for her relatives, young son, and herself. As war invades Hungary, Margit’s main concern is getting her son out of the country and safely returned to his father.
Shames humanizes the unspeakable horrors faced by innocent people throughout World War II without romanticizing any of these events. Margit Wolf is sent to a concentration camp, a fortunate survivor among thousands who are not so lucky. While the novel is about a love story between a rising ballerina and established maestro, it is really Margit Wolf’s story that is told. Once she separates from Frustaci, he is mentioned very sporadically throughout the rest of the novel, even though he is the famous half of the couple. (His best-known song, “You, Fascinating You”, a tribute to his estranged wife, was recorded by vocalist Vittorio de Sica in 1939 and later by the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band). But Shames focuses on Margit and her son Cesare, who eventually does get out of Hungary—much to Margit’s horror, however, she learns that his father has refused him and she sets out to bring him home. It would be twenty-two years before Margit is reunited with her husband, and even then, it is under most unusual circumstances.
Cesare Frustaci himself provided much of the material for the novel, as Shames explains in the epilogue. He has made it a point to share the details of his parents’ love story and their lives during World War II with audiences around the world. While Shames recounts the details of a love story that I would call unrequited, the strength Margit Wolf shows throughout the war years cannot be denied. Shames brings us a story of true character under the most unthinkable conditions.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com