Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Sex as a consolation and substitute for fame, and a young woman behaving with the confidence and lack of commitment of the male, is the driving force of Jena Li – a brilliant child prodigy who once played her Stradivarius violin to international audiences.
Being a young, now 23, beautiful Asian, she indulges in sexual interludes with multiple partners. Developing into an adult is difficult for any young person, but for Jena, her talent and the shock of the loss of her reputation as a prodigy as well as dealing with family and friendships compounds the challenges she has to face.
Her life is one of dizzying energy and unflagging determination. Discovering an emotional fulfillment her fame once brought is pursued through her music and female friendships – first with Olivia and then Val.
After two years of silence, she resumes her musical career with the Sydney Symphony and then the illustrious New York Philharmonic. Her life remains one of unrelenting stress but, no longer a child, she seems to cope. At age six, she hated to stop practising to either eat or go to the toilet. The pace is not so frenetic now.
She manages to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which many regard as the most difficult of the concertos, without a meltdown which she failed to do that fateful night.
After the shock of her breakdown and her absence from the concert halls, she returns to Sydney. Her audition for an orchestral position is grippingly told. The reader shares the tension and the anxiety. There is the countdown of days to the audition, the frantic practices, and then the waiting for the result.
There is a significant and daunting exchange with Banks, her long-standing teacher and mentor. He says ‘Do you want to be happy? Or do you want to be famous? Because you can’t be both’. She is reminded of the fable of the Little Mermaid. To win the love of the Prince, she wished to have legs. The price she paid for them was the loss of her voice …
Jena is intimately portrayed as complex, especially with her relationships. One of the many men who slept with her, Mark, is the most regular. He abandons his girlfriend Dresden to spend weekends with her. Jena is bemused by his array of skin products in his bathroom. Eighteen in all – they range from facial cleanser to anti-gravity wash off serum! A man desperate or very unsure of himself.
Later, he forsakes Dresden and proposes to Jena. She does not hesitate in rejecting him.
At first, I was not drawn to Jena with her fiercely demanding life, sex addiction and desire to excel at almost any price. Her relationship with her mother is tangled and she is obsessively devoted to her friend Olivia. However, happily, I persevered and discovered a book that is written with a courageous and dazzling skill.
The novel gives a vivid and detailed picture of the price a young performer must pay in order to excel. The strength and devotion required to be the best is greater than that of an elite athlete. Perfecting her performance consumes Jena’s life.
The music references – evidence of the author’s experience of fifteen years as a violinist – and the descriptive scenes of New York life added to the pleasure, but it is Jena Li, the searingly honest, brilliant virtuoso who is truly such a lonely girl who is both dangerous, especially to herself, and intensely exciting.
Bravissimo Jessie Tu! A standing ovation for your debut.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing
by Jessie Tu
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 1 760 87719 4