Wednesday, March 17, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I love biographical fiction. It was a gateway for me into my favorite genre: historical fiction. So Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan was right up my alley.

The protagonist, Katherine Faulkner Swift, is an extraordinarily talented, classically trained pianist, who lives for her music. She does not come from wealth, but she moves in wealthy circles, primarily as a performer, providing background music for social events. It is at one such event that she meets James Warburg. The twenty-year-old son of a fabulously wealthy banker, “Jimmy” is a sensitive-seeming, handsome, ambitious charmer. Before long, they are an item. Despite his family’s objections, they marry.

Life as a society wife and mother is not satisfying for Katherine. She never wanted to be a mother. She misses performing. And worst of all, Jimmy is unfaithful. Repeatedly. He feeds her the tired excuse that it’s what men do, and none of the women mean anything to him. He even gives her permission to cheat, too.

Still, she isn’t looking to take a lover. Until she hears George Gershwin perform Rhapsody in Blue. She meets him. She falls hard. Her marriage (and children) become an encumbrance. If Jimmy has regrets, and it seems he does, too bad for him. She loves Gershwin with all her heart. 

The book traces the course of Katherine’s life and her trials as Warburg’s wife and Gershwin’s lover. More than just lovers, they work together. They help one another reach greater musical heights. They inspire one another. However, there is always the sense that Katherine is more invested in the relationship than Gershwin. He, too, is unfaithful. Repeatedly and publicly. He claims he can’t commit because she’s married, but it’s pretty clear he’s glad she’s married so he has an excuse.

Katherine wants to compose music, and with George’s encouragement and connections, her career takes off. Along the way, she discovers that her husband has a talent for writing lyrics. They begin a musical collaboration as well. Because it wouldn’t do for James Warburg the banker and financial whiz to be known as a pop-song writer, they go by the pseudonyms Paul James and Kay Swift. (It is as Kay Swift that she is mostly known today.)

The novel is steeped in the music. I found myself jumping to youtube to listen to songs that are mentioned along the way. It is also steeped in early twentieth-century entertainment culture. Famous names are sprinkled throughout, grounding the story in its larger-than-life setting. 

Despite the celebrity, the talent, the success, the extreme wealth, and the elaborate partying, the main characters, people who “have it all,” are fundamentally unhappy. The poignancy is that they recognize their selfishness but wallow in it rather than attempting to change. And, in the deft hand of this author, the novel succeeds because, despite their flaws, these are multi-dimensional, likeable characters. 

You don’t have to be knowledgeable about early twentieth-century music to enjoy this novel. I certainly am not. But I found I was familiar with more of the tunes than I expected and the little bursts of recognition enhanced the reading experience. 

If you enjoy Rhapsody, look for Kaplan’s previous novels, Into the Unbounded Night and By Fire, By Water.


  1. I'm afraid I had a very hard time with this book and I had to give up at about 50%. All of the name-dropping and extraneous information and action got in the way of Kay and George, so that I felt I had no connection to them, and didn't care what happened. A real shame because I was very excited to read something about Gershwin, because I adore his music!

  2. Susan, this is a brilliant review. Thank you so much.