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The Time of Our Singing Hardcover – January 22, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In some respects, Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing is just a big, absorbing drama about an American family, with the typical ingredients of an immigrant parent and some social obstacles--in this case, a biracial marriage in the Civil Rights era--to be overcome by the talented children. But Powers's lyrical gifts lift this material far above its familiar subject matter. His descriptions of music alone will transport the reader. The Strom family were raised with this common language: "Our parents' Crazed Quotations game played on the notion that every moment's tune had all history's music box for its counterpoint. On any evening in Hamilton Heights, we could jump from organum to atonality without any hint of all the centuries that had died fiery deaths between them." The central figure of this novel is the dazzling Jonah, who makes a life from singing, and who may be the only person around him who regards his racial heritage as irrelevant to his ambitions. Powers's is such a fertile writer, however, that he can't stay with any single story, but plunges into pages and pages of family and social histories. The result is a rambling, resonant, fearless novel that pulls the reader along in its wake. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Powers (Plowing the Dark, etc.) has generated considerable excitement as a novelist of ideas, but as a creator of characters, he is on shakier ground. Here he confronts his weaknesses head-on, crafting a hefty family saga that attempts to probe generational conflicts, sibling rivalries and racial identity. The book follows the mixed-race Strom family through much of the 20th century, from 1939 when German-Jewish physicist David Strom meets Delia Daley, a black, classically trained singer from Philadelphia through the 1990s. The couple marries and has three children: eldest son Jonah, a charismatic, egotistical singing prodigy; Joseph, his self-sacrificing accompanist; and Ruth, the rebel of the family, who becomes a militant black activist. There are two separate strands to the story: one is a third-person chronicle of David and Delia's relationship through the 1940s; the other, narrated by Joseph, is about the brothers' education in the nearly all-white world of classical music and their experience of the civil rights movement as the rest of the country grudgingly catches up to the Stroms' radical experiment. Powers's premise is intriguing, and the plot's architecture is impressive, informed by the notion, from physics, of space-time wrinkles and time curves. Missing, however, are the pulse-quickening vintage-Powers moments in which his discussions of technology and science open up profound existential quandaries. Most of the book is taken up with a prolonged, overdetermined and off-key examination of family relationships and identity struggles. Narrator Joseph is supposed to be eclipsed by his brother, but Powers overshoots the mark: for half the book, Joseph is little more than a pair of eyes and ears. Powers's depiction of how public events filter into individual consciousness can also be surprisingly unimaginative; Joseph periodically runs down a list of current events, using stale, iconic imagery ("our hatless boy president plays touch football on the White House lawn"). Powers deserves credit for taking a risk, but his own experiment reveals his startling tone deafness to the subtle inflections of human experience.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (January 22, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374277826
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374277826
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #583,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
...that is heartbreaking in its beauty and its tragedy. And its hope.

I thought for a long time regarding how best to describe this book in one sentence. In this, I felt as if I had been put in the predicament experienced by a New York Times book reviewer who, two decades ago, in describing a favorite work of literature, wrote "...I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately describing its brilliance." And, with apologies to another author whose title words I paraphrase above, this is how I choose to describe this powerful new novel.

The overarching theme of the story is race, and what it is like to be black in America (even if that "blackness" is barely apparent and issues of class and culture are largely absent). It is the story of three siblings - two brothers of nearly the same age and a younger sister - flung apart repeatedly by the centripetal force of race and its effect on family and career in the latter half of the 20th century, only to be brought back together time and again by the pressure of events, both familial and racial. Powers uses the subthemes of classical music and contemporary physics to compelling effect in weaving together both the narrative of the siblings (and their family) and the greater story of "being black in America." In the process, he cuts across time, flashing backwards and forwards in the narrative while telling both the story of the siblings and the history of race relations from their parents' generation to the near-present. The latter is dealt with in a series of brilliant set pieces covering every race-relations event of significance over this period, from Marian Anderson's Lincoln Memorial concert of 1939, in defiance of the D.A.R.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was enthusiastically recommended to me by a friend, and the reviews I read of it made me even more eager to read it. Now, having finished it, I find myself rather disappointed, yet somewhat hesitant to give an opinion. The writing itself is of such quality and, often, sheer beauty, and the scope of its themes is so monumental, that I cannot help but admire the writer for his audacity and skill. Of course, likes and dislikes are always matters of taste, but this eventual "dislike" had me wondering if the fault was with this particular reader rather than the novel. Still, the book left me, if not exactly bored, strangely exasperated. It seems to be one of those novels where the story does not evolve naturally from the characters, but where the characters are elaborate mechanisms for dispensing philosophical and political ideas. A suspicion Powers tries to repel by cramming his pages with picturesque and quaint individual detail, and by rehashing the central motives (race, time, music) in a way that verges on the obsessive - bloating this book to a daunting 630 pages in the process.
The Time of Our Singing tells the story of a black woman and a jewish man who decide to marry after meeting at a musical event-slash-antidiscrimination rally. Their mixed marriage is the bane of her parents, and of the central characters in the novel, the two sons and the daughter issueing from their bond. One of the sons grows into a singer of world class stature, while the other is tossed to and fro between the claims made on him by his brother as a fellow-musician, and by his sister as a fellow black person.
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Format: Hardcover
Readers of Richard Powers's breakout novel, THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, already know that no one in contemporary letters writes about music or science with the depth of feeling or grace of metaphor that Powers brings to the subjects. THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, Powers's third and breakout novel, conflated J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations with the cracking of the genetic code (as well as with Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Gold-Bug"). Powers returns to music and science in his eighth novel, THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, this time using them as an entryway to reflections on the role of race in the lives of individuals and American society.
Through two story lines that ultimately intersect, the novel recounts the history of the Strom family, a family remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the innate musical talent that finds its greatest --- or at least most public --- outlet in Jonah Strom, a vocal prodigy who makes the singing of chamber music his life and livelihood. Jonah is the eldest son of a Jewish physicist who left Germany to escape the Nazis and an African-American woman from Philadelphia who met on the Mall in Washington D.C. during the historic performance by Marian Anderson on Easter day 1939. Improbably, the two fell in love and their union produced three offspring: Jonah, Joseph --- who narrates much of the novel and is Jonah's accompanist --- and Ruth, who finds her identity in the more radical arm of the civil rights movement and rejects her brothers' love and performance of European music.
The novel's primary concern may be the ways in which racial identity influences the course of a person's life, but along the way, Powers offers remarkable descriptions of music and the process of creating it: "This is how I see my brother, forever.
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