Ecstasy: A Novel

Ecstasy: A Novel

by Mary Sharratt


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In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era

Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees? In Ecstasy, Mary Sharratt finally gives one of the most controversial and complex women of her time the center stage. 

Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?
Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781328614209
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 04/09/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 349,159
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT, the author of six previous critically acclaimed novels, is on a mission to write strong women back into history. Her lifelong love of classical music and her explorations into the lives of female composers inspired her to write Ecstasy.

Read an Excerpt

Here is where my awakening shall occur, Alma told herself. In magical Venice, in the spring of the year and the spring of her life. Never mind that it was pouring rain and fog hung as thickly as wool.

In the hotel salon, she played piano, accompanying her mother who sang lieder to entertain their fellow tourists sheltering from the miserable weather. How beautiful was her mother’s soprano, how flawless her diction. Mama had been an opera singer before she married Alma’s father, now almost seven years dead.

At the song’s close came a burst of applause. Alma beamed at her audience. Sitting among the English and German tourists were Gretl; their stepfather, Carl; and his colleague Gustav Klimt, who seemed to regard Alma with amused speculation. For Easter, Herr Klimt had given her a silly card of a shepherdess encircled by adoring sheep sporting gentlemen’s hats—Alma kept it tucked in her journal.

He is so handsome, she thought, heat rising in her face. With his powerful body, his curly hair and beard, he reminded her of the figures on ancient Greek vases. If Gustav Klimt had even the faintest clue how infatuated she was, she would die. Thirty-seven years old, the most celebrated painter in all Vienna, he could marry a countess just by snapping his fingers.

Nonetheless, Alma made herself stare right back at him to prove she wasn’t some giddy girl he could disarm with a smile.

Her stepfather was so fond of Klimt, he had all but begged him to join them on their journey through Italy even though Klimt swore that he hated foreign travel and was terrible with languages. As a painter, Carl was nowhere near as brilliant as Klimt—or Emil Schindler, whose protégé Carl had been. Klimt and Papa are giants, Alma told herself. But Carl was a lesser talent who hung on to the coattails of the great in hope that some of their glory might rub off on him. It wasn’t that her stepfather was a bad man, but Alma often wondered why Mama seemed to worship him.

Alma set her sights higher. Nothing less than a man of brilliance would do for her, a truly modern man who understood her need to continue composing even after she was married. She wasn’t one, like her sister, to settle for the very first suitor. Gretl was engaged to the tedious Wilhelm Legler, a painter of almost numbing mediocrity. No, Alma vowed to wait for the right man, the one whose love would help her unfold to her highest purpose.

Rising from the piano bench, Alma was gathering up her music scores when an elderly English lady approached her.

“Fräulein, you played so beautifully, like a concert pianist,” she said. “Tell me, who was the composer?”

“I am,” Alma replied. She lowered her eyes.

“My daughter composed all eight lieder we performed,” Mama added, with warmth and pride.

The English lady seemed most impressed. She grasped Alma’s hands. “Keep on composing, won’t you, dear? Show the men that we women can achieve something.”

Alma found herself flushing and speechless, seized with both a bottomless joy and an ambition that left her breathless. Many a girl showed talent and promise only to give it up for marriage, as Mama had done when she was only twenty-one and pregnant—out of wedlock!—with Alma. But wasn’t a new age dawning, all the rules for art, music, and society changing at once?

As the English lady and her companions took their leave, Gretl announced that she was dying for a game of whist, so Mama and Carl sat down with her at the card table. But Alma could think of no pastime more deadening to the intellect and spirit. Mumbling her excuses, she carried her music scores upstairs to the room that she and Gretl were sharing.

Closing the door behind her, Alma sank into an armchair and buried herself in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which Mama considered unseemly for a young girl. But Mama had long given up trying to control what Alma read. You’re so stubborn, her mother was always saying. So boneheaded.

Yet truth be told, Alma was rapidly losing patience with Emma Bovary. She found the character incomprehensible. Her madness, her degrading love affairs, her endless lying to herself and others—was this woman flighty, cowardly, or simply coarse and common?

Tossing the book aside, Alma opened the French doors and stepped out on the balcony to breathe in the fresh, cool air now that the rain had finally let up. The canal below was gray with a shimmer of yellow as the sun broke through gaps in the fog. Gray was her favorite color, the way it so seamlessly merged with other hues. An artist’s daughter, she observed how every raindrop on the balcony rail became a gleaming pearl. The crumbling palazzos across the canal seemed almost rosy. Everything flickered and glowed in dreamy gray light.

Hearing a noise in the room, Alma left the balcony and stepped inside.

“Gretl?” she called. She had left the door unlocked since her sister was always forgetting her key.

Instead, she found Gustav Klimt standing in the middle of her room. Her heart began to pound even as she told herself that he must be looking for Carl and had wandered in here by mistake.

“Alma,” he said. “Are you on your own?”

“Why, yes,” she said, without thinking. “The others are—”

Before she could finish her sentence, Klimt crossed the room in two huge strides. A gasp caught in her throat as he pulled her body against his, kissing her with vehemence and heat, his lips firm and insistent, his beard bristling against her chin. Her first kiss.

What magic was this? It was as though her hidden longing had summoned him straight into her embrace. Time seemed to drop away, everything before or after this single moment diminishing into nothingness as the ecstasy surged inside her, crashing like a wave inside her heart.

Klimt cupped her face to his. “I could see all the passion locked inside you while you were playing the piano. The time has come to set it free.”

She trembled just to gaze into his gray green eyes.

“Love me,” he whispered, running his fingers around her lips.

She tenderly caressed his hair, feeling the thick, springy curls twining around her fingertips. She kissed him with a hunger that left her aching. The soft quivering in her belly and knees was countered by a shooting heat, a rising energy that made her want to dance. But instead of losing herself in her frenzy, she made herself slow down, kissing him with deliberation, savoring each nuance of his lips against hers, her chest against his, their lungs swelling in unison as if sharing the same breath. All the dusty descriptions of love scenes she had read in Madame Bovary and elsewhere seemed meaningless now. This was what passion, what awakening, truly was.

When Klimt asked if he could take out her hairpins, Alma nodded, moved beyond speech. He pulled them out one by one until her brown hair fell over her shoulders like a cloak. As if in holy awe, Klimt drew back and stared.

“How I long to paint you.”

He positioned her before the full-length mirror. His arm around her waist, he stood behind her, looking over her shoulder. When their eyes met in the mirror, he commanded her to look at herself, as though he, the artist, were revealing her own image to her for the very first time. Alma squirmed but couldn’t take her eyes off the mirror, for this was as exciting as it was uncomfortable.

This is what men see when they look at me. Tall, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Klimt. Her face was flushed with yearning, her blue eyes huge, blinking rapidly.

“You are so ripe and voluptuous,” he said, drawing her attention to her waving tresses flowing over her breasts. His hands traced the curve of her hips. Swinging her around to face him again, he stroked her hair.

“Alma,” he said. “My little wife.”

Oh, to marry Klimt.

A sweet ache bloomed inside her as they kissed, his tongue flicking between her teeth. Then she jolted at the sound of Mama’s and Carl’s voices in the adjoining room. Then she jolted at the sound of Mama’s and Carl’s voices in the adjoining room.

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Ecstasy: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
teachlz More than 1 year ago
Linda Zagon's review Mar 23, 2018 · edit it was amazing My Review of “Ecstasy” by Mary Sharratt I loved everything about the Historical Fiction novel “Ecstasy” by Mary Sharratt. The timeline for this story is the turn of the century, when the various forms of the arts show changes. The story goes to the past and to the future when it pertains to the characters or events. The story takes place in Vienna, Austria, Europe, and and New York Mary Sharratt describes her characters as complicated and complex. Many are talented and artistic in many ways. This is a time where passion can be seen in art, music, theater, opera and dance. There are a few courageous and brave women that are able to break through in the male dominated arts. Alma Schindler has been brought up in a talented household. Her father was a famous painter, her stepfather is also an artist, and her mother was an opera singer. From an early childhood, Alma has played the piano. Her passion for composing music shows as she enters young adulthood. Alma turns many heads when she goes to the Opera house. Unfortunately, it is a time where a young woman is supposed to get married and have responsibilities with her family. Alma wants so much more. She wants to learn more about rhythm, counterpoint and wants to compose an opera. Although Alma wants to compose, she also wants to love and be loved. How can Alma share her compassion for anything but music? Alma is impressed by Gustav Mahler, and soon becomes his wife. Gustav Mahler has made it clear, there is no place for Alma’s composing in their life together. I appreciate the way that the author describes the feminist spirit in her writing. She also writes about the balance of being a wife, mother, sister, daughter, and a composer. I would recommend this story for readers of Historical Fiction. I received an ARC for my honest review.
MaraBlaise More than 1 year ago
I saw the movie Mahler by Ken Russell a couple of years ago. Well, it's so many years ago that I don't really remember much about it. But, it was my first introduction to Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma. So, when I saw that there would be a book about Alma Mahler was I instantly interested. I was thrilled when I got a copy of this book to read. Just think of what Alma Schindler could have achieved if she was born decades later when a woman could be much more than a wife and a mother. She dreamed of becoming a composer, but her mother and stepfather (mostly stepfather) didn't think higher education would be something for her since she was a woman and wasting money on an education for her was nothing he wanted since his opinion was that her role in life getting married and have children. Alma, however, wanted to compose, to be something. Then, Gustav Mahler enters her life, and she falls in love with him. However, he demands that she gives up her music to dedicate her life to their marriage and his needs. And, she does that. She suffocates the part of herself that loves music, but how can she be complete when part of her, the creative part of her has to be subdued? When her life is only to be a wife and mother? It doesn't, and it's just tragic that when they finally find themselves true to each other, Gustav and Alma is time running out for them... This book would have been at least twice as thick (or more) if Mary Sharratt has written about Almas whole life, not just her marriage to Mahler. And, I would have read it. I loved the book from the very start. I loved getting to know Alma Mahler, this extraordinary woman that had such a fantastic life. I loved how Alma finally has come out of the shadows of the famous men she was married to. To show the world that she was a great composer as well.
Conroyd More than 1 year ago
Mary Sharratt's novelization of Alma Mahler is as rich as many of the characters therein. Alma longs to follow her passion for music but the times and attitudes of most of those around her hold her back. Marrying Gustav Mahler, a leading composer and conductor of the day, complicates her life in dozens of ways, as well. The lavish setting of Vienna with its well-heeled, colorful characters~albeit with myriad flaws in both people and mores of the era~plays out a bit like a film, replete with characters~and music~ we know, like Alma, her husband, and even an early suitor of hers, the artist Gustave Klimt. One can only hope for Alma as she tries to follow her bliss~and cheer for her with each little victory. ~James Conroyd Martin