A review of River Aria by Joan Schweighardt

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

River Aria
Rivers Book 3
By Joan Schweighardt
Five Directions Press
Oct 2020, ISBN-13: 978-1947044272, Paperback, 350 pages

River Aria is the third and final book in Joan Schweighardt’s wonderful three book Rivers series. The series is set between 1908 and 1929, with all of the books pivoting around the small town of Manaus in Brazil, during and after the Amazon rubber boom. The three books progress consecutively from the tale of Baxter and Jack Hooper, American Irish brothers who left their home to seek fortune in the Brazilian jungle in book one, to Jack’s somber homecoming and his relationship with Nora in book two. Book three is the story of Estela Euquério Hopper, the Menaus-born daughter Jack didn’t know he had. Book three has Estela travelling to the US from Menaus to realise her dream of becoming an opera singer, thanks to the patronage of Carlito Camilo, a visiting music teacher who hears Estela’s potential and teaches her to sing opera. Carlito has obtained employment for her as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera, in the hopes that Estela will find a way to sing. Estela travels with her ‘cousin’ Jo Jo, a talented artist who has been scouted by Felix Black, a visiting benefactor at the Art Students League in New York. The book is written in first person, from Estela’s point of view, and her enthusiasm and sharp perceptions make her a likeable and intelligent narrator, whose musical ability is woven into the narrative:

Once he was gone I lay on my bunk, thinking how best to begin. I could hear the music of the engines below me, the air compressors and pumps that JoJo had described before we’d ever boarded, and I was drawn to the sounds like a magia branca to a candle. I rolled off the bunk, onto the dirty wood floor, and lay on my stomach. I turned my head to the side and placed my left ear, which was the better of the two, against the floor and closed my eyes. It took all my concentration to pull the sounds apart, to hear each separately, to identify the range of harmonics, and then glue them back together and uncover the rhythms.

Jo Jo and Estela’s arrival in New York provides a neat reversal of the original story of Baxter and Jack Hooper in Book one, Before We Died, where the brothers go to the Amazon to earn their fortunes tapping rubber.  Schweighardt writes with a great deal of sensitivity, and the story, as with all of the stories in the Rivers series, does an excellent job of balancing accuracy to the historical context with modern relevancy.  The story moves quickly as Estela and Jo Jo begin to learn about both the inherent corruption of the America they’ve inhabited, as well as their own weaknesses.

The story is full of fascinating detail of the time, exploring prohibition and the speakeasies of the 1920s, the impact of depression, addiction, and of course the racism that Estela and Jo Jo grow up with and which is exacerbated when they arrive in New York. These threads are woven in with delicacy to Estela’s story but form a web that very cleverly links this book with the other two – connecting the aggressions that reverberate through the decades as Estela and Jo Jo encounter a range of challenges arising from the people they come in contact with, some well-meaning, some opportunistic, and some outright evil.  

There are many parallels throughout the book: Estela and Jo Jo’s relationship against Jack and Nora’s, Estela’s music against Jo Jo’s visual art, the music of the Speakeasy against the operas of the Metropolitan Opera House, the paid work that Jo Jo does versus his unpaid portraits, and the different living conditions. Schweighardt’s descriptions are always vivid, and reveal Estela’s charming ‘breathless’ character as she discovers the architecture of the city, the fabric in the Met sewing room, the suburban calm of Nora and Jack’s house in Hoboken, with “Nameless” the dog, the seductive jazz of the speakeasy, and the opera house itself: 

The opera house was a world onto itself, a world where magic was the norm, where flat wooden panels became striking settings, where men and women became princes and princesses, kings and queens. It was a world that celebrated love as the highest good, whether it begot rapture or, more often, ruin and woe. It was precisely where I wanted to be. (99)

River Aria is an exquisitely written conclusion to the Rivers trio. Schweighardt creates rich layers of meaning through the three books, across settings that are sometimes sumptuous and sometimes desolate, but always rich in psychology, history, drama, theatre, and a very subtle political thread that hints at the power of compassion.  It is certainly possible to read River Aria on its own, and Estela and Jo Jo make for engaging protagonists whose stories unfold with the grace of one of the operas Estela learns to sing. Taken collectively, however, the Rivers trilogy forms a grand epic that is irresistible.