Summary and book reviews of Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 393 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2014, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

The National Book Award–winning author of The Echo Maker delivers his most emotionally charged novel to date, inspired by the myth of Orpheus.

In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab - the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns - has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security.

Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els - the "Bioterrorist Bach" - pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them. The result is a novel that soars in spirit and language by a writer who "may be America's most ambitious novelist" (Kevin Berger, San Francisco Chronicle).

Orfeo

An overture, then:

Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware. He's clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves, and his Giacometti body hunches forward as if in prayer. A gray but still-thick Beatles mop hangs in his eyes.

He studies a book on the gear-cluttered workbench. In one hand—a single-channel pipette, raked like a dagger. From a tiny refrigerated vial, he sucks up no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm. This pellet goes into a tube no bigger than a mouse's muzzle, a dollop so small he can't be sure it's really there. His gloved hands shake as he shoots the used pipette tip into the trash.

More liquids go from the beakers into the dollhouse cocktail: oligo ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The story of Orfeo, or Orpheus, is a Greek myth about a musician's descent into Hades to retrieve his dead beloved and return her to the land of the living. In what ways is Orfeo the story of a musician's descent into hell and his attempted act of resurrection?
  2. The power of music over memory and time is an essential part of this book. How does music generate nostalgia in Orfeo's characters?
  3. Els often compares events and processes in the natural world to music. What connections does he hear between music and living things?
  4. Els' dedication to music leads him to make sacrifices. In what ways do these sacrifices hurt him or help him? Are sacrifices like his worth it?
  5. Is Els a terrorist? Why or why not? What is he ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

“Life turned out to be one shot, stray and mistaken, a single burst scattered on the air,” Peter Els reflects in Orfeo. Even just that one line captures wave upon wave of heartache, loneliness, and profound regret. It delivers a sense of immediacy and empathy that only truly great fiction can. 2014 might just be getting started but I already know which book will be on my list of favorites this year.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (912 words).

Media Reviews

Library Journal

This latest from National Book Award winner Powers (The Echo Maker) is concerned with advanced scientific technologies and musical theory that allow the author to riff on arcane vocabularies, but the stories of the Elses and their friends provide another, more human dimension to this very well-written and philosophical work.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Powers's talent for translating avant-garde music into engrossing vignettes on the page is inexhaustible.

Booklist

Starred Review. Powers has a way of rendering the world that makes it seem familiar and alien, friendly and frightening… the effect is heartbreaking and beautiful.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The earmarks of the renowned novelist's work are here… but rarely have his novels been so tightly focused and emotionally compelling.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Creating Music from Science

In Orfeo, the protagonist Peter Els sees many similarities between gene structures and music. "Genomics was right now learning how to read scores indescribably beautiful," Powers writes. And while the book talks about an entire segment of study that is called "biocomposing" with its own dedicated journal and conference, research reveals the projects to be still scattered and not quite corralled into a sturdy discipline.

External Weather, Internal Storms Stormy Weather, Internal Storms
















Since the essence of music can be boiled down to a series of notes, it makes sense that most patterns observed in the universe could be "set" to music. Here are some examples of music derived from science:

  • The human genome is a pattern of essentially four bases: A (Adenine); T (Thymine); C (...

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