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A 21st-century twist on the familiar story of Swan Lake, Meeting Odette shows – in the best tradition of Christmas fairy-tales – how even against the greatest odds innocence, empathy, humanity and hope can win the day.
When a swan crashes through Mitzi Fairweather’s front window during a winter storm, the shocked young journalist decides to tend the injured bird overnight. But this is no ordinary swan. At sundown, she turns into a human being…
This startling visitor is Odette, the enchanted swan princess – and her presence lands Mitzi with some bizarre decisions. Odette is charming, talented and full of joie de vivre, yet with nothing but her dress, no understanding of the modern world and no way to go home, she is totally dependent on the kindness of strangers she encounters here in the university town of Cygnford. Doomed to be a swan by day and a woman by night, she remains convinced – to Mitzi’s distress – that only a man’s sworn eternal love can break her spell.
As Mitzi and Odette try to hide the improbable truth, their web of deception grows ever more tangled. Mitzi’s brother takes Odette for a sofa-surfing refugee, and Cyngford’s attitude to a homeless stranger is not always welcoming. But while winter grows colder and Mitzi increasingly shares Odette’s plight, perhaps the swan princess’s freedom doesn’t lie quite where anybody expects.
Jessica Duchen’s writing on classical music, opera and ballet has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. Her first five novels have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim: most recently Ghost Variations (published by Unbound, 2016) was selected as Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was among the Daily Mail’s Best Reads of 2016 (“A thrilling read” – John Suchet).
Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and felt torn at first between the prospects of a musical career and a literary one. Her interest in cross-genre arts finds music playing a vital role in her fiction as well as her journalism, and she frequently narrates concert versions of three of her novels, Ghost Variations, Alicia’s Gift and Hungarian Dances.
Current highlights include her first opera libretto, Silver Birch, for the composer Roxanna Panufnik – a commission from Garsington Opera for premiere in July 2017. Her output also includes two plays, biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré (both published by Phaidon) and her popular classical music blog, JDCMB (http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com).
Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats. She enjoys playing the piano (preferably when nobody can hear her), as well as cookery, long walks and plundering second-hand bookshops for out-of-print musical gems.
Beyond the road and the river, something was flying in the wind – a curious triangle, pale as paper, expanding by the moment. A bird. A large bird, in trouble. Its wings, which must have been six foot from tip to tip, were offering no resistance; its black webbed feet were pressed back against its belly; its long neck was stretched, straining forward. Mitzi recognized the yellow and black beak of a Bewick’s swan, not the musty pink of the Mute swans that lived on the Cygn. It flailed, flapping – then, as she watched in disbelief, it turned its back on the wind, set its wings, pointed its beak and dived, in control and with phenomenal acceleration, straight towards her house.
Mitzi leapt up, shielding her face with her arms, as the swan struck. The window imploded, the wind roared in with a geyser of glass and rain, and the swan thudded onto the table, blood trailing crimson in the rainwater across its splayed wings. Its head lolled to one side. Unconscious? Dead?
Shaking, her legs like slush, Mitzi forced herself forward, step by step across the broken glass towards the creature. With one finger she reached out to touch the down on its neck, soft as fur. Crimson-stained whiteness filled her mind. Spots swam in front of her eyes and nausea gripped her – shock, she told herself, casting back for the sofa and slumping, head on her knees. Think, concentrate, remember: kitchen cupboard, scissors, broken window. Patch it up, fast. Fighting to control her breath, she pulled herself up. She had to hunt for packing tape and black bin-liners, opening them up along the folds. Rain lashed her while she forced the improvised sheets against the gaping mouth of the window frame and the invading elements it was spewing into her room. In her panic, she fancied the storm was pursuing the unfortunate swan. And, oh God, the landlord…what on earth could she say to Robert Winter or his agent about the front window?
The window, though, was not alive. The swan needed her attention faster. “A swan can break a man’s arm,” her father used to say when they watched them together. An injured bird might become frantic even if you were trying to help it. Other people said birds were flea-ridden. Mitzi risked the fleas and stroked the unconscious swan’s head. Was its eye following her? Watching, perhaps accepting her help? It had to be alive. She couldn’t bear it if it were dead.
If she’d found a wounded cat or dog in the street she’d have known what to do – but a swan?
There was a vet’s surgery further up Richardson Road, only a few minutes away. She looked up the number on the Internet. The receptionist sounded as confused as Mitzi felt. “A swan?” she echoed. “I’m sorry, I’m new here, I only started two days ago, and it’s lunch break now… but I suppose you’d better bring it in. Afternoon surgery starts at four.”
“Don’t you think Henry could fit us in earlier? I’d say this was an emergency.” Mitzi tried to keep her cool.
“Well… I can ask him. It doesn’t sound exactly – well – usual.”
“It’s not,” said Mitzi. “Thanks.”
That’s right, just bring it in. A wild swan with a six-foot wing span. Assuming it was alive, if it would let her touch it then it might let her pick it up; it would probably be too weak to resist. Mitzi pulled on her raincoat and gloves and prepared to lift the splayed out bird off the table.
She hadn’t expected its weight, or the flop of its wings to each side, dwarfing her. She managed to manoeuvre it out of her door and step by step down the stairs. The swan’s neck and head drooped over her shoulder, the wings spread across her body; it felt animal, living and warm, its heart beating in a way that seemed almost human. But in the hall she admitted defeat and put it down.
- 11th November 2019 ODETTE concert at Barnes Music Society, Wednesday 13 November
Dear friends and supporters,
ODETTE continues to fly, and not only in cyberspace and bookshelves. On Wednesday this week (13 Nov) I join forces with the award-winning, rising-star violinist Fenella Humphreys and the ever-magnificent pianist Viv McLean to present ODETTE: A CELEBRATION OF SWAN LAKE at the Barnes Music Society. It's at the lovely Old Sorting Office (OSO) arts centre beside Barnes…31st July 2019 New book on the way: IMMORTAL - The story of Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved'
Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of 'Ghost Variations' and/or the fantasy of 'Odette', you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody…30th November 2018 THE SWAN HAS LANDED
All over the country, all over the world,
'Odette' is landing, or so I've heard...
It's been a wonderful morning as Twitter and Instagram load up with a familiar purple, feathery image: the paperbacks have gone out to all you fabulous supporters - if you haven't received yours yet, it's on its way! The most bizarre feeling is that after all these years, people might actually get to read…23rd November 2018 ...And it's here!
Look what arrived today!
Ricki and Cosi 'helped' me open the parcel from the printers. I had a quiet gloat about holding this book in my hands AT LAST after 26 YEARS. All the kitties were really interested in, though, was the prospect of playing in the cardboard box afterwards.
It really is a lovely plummy-violety sort of purple. I was afraid it might be too bright, but it isn't. Actually, I…22nd October 2018 How 'Kate' changed my life
Dear supporters and patrons,
It's all real – Odette is preparing for take-off. You'll have had some updates from the office recently, explaining that the book is in design and editorial, and I thought you might enjoy some insights into what that means for me in particular.
Part of 'editorial', for instance, means reading the whole manuscript aloud to myself and the cat, twice. I nearly…19th August 2018 Editorial Development: a view from the cat-tree..
The other day I growled to my husband, "This book is driving me mad." He gave a shrug: "They always do." After 20 years, to him it's water off a violinist's back, and he retreats happily to practise his Paganini. Upstairs, though, I am in the middle of what is elegantly termed 'Editorial Development', but is, to me, the inevitable part of writing a book that is a bit like being skinned alive. The…25th June 2018 Sooner than we thought! Plus, er, Siberia
After a spendid meeting with Xander at the Unbound offices last week, I'm suddenly facing the likelihood that ODETTE will see the light of day a wee bit sooner than expected. Christmas means Christmas...18. Not 19. 18. That's 6 months from now, in case you haven't noticed! So please don't buy your Christmas presents too soon: this one will, I hope, be worth hanging on for.
It's all hands on deck…13th June 2018 *WE DID IT!*
At last, the news everyone has been waiting for: MEETING ODETTE has made target! It's going to happen. It really is. And it's all thanks to you, my dear, treasured friends and (I hope) fans!
I can't thank you enough for:
a) pledging to the book;
b) your ongoing support, moral as well as financial;
c) bearing with us while the funding was raised;
d) bearing with us still longer while I revise…1st June 2018 'Due to a swan on the line...'
They get around, our avian friends. The Guardian's dance critic Judith Mackrell has just posted this picture on Twitter and I'm sure she won't mind if we conscript it.
Our Odette as a swan finds herself in some other, comparably tricky situations:
Blown across the North Sea;
crashing through a window;
going to the vet;
attempting to shoplift;
trapped on a rooftop closely resembling King…8th March 2018 Aiming for the stars
It's International Women's Day and I have decided to own up to what I really want MEETING ODETTE to be - and always have, ever since I started it in 1992.
My dream is to make this book a new magical-realism feminist classic. I don't know if I can do it, but I intend to give it my very best shot.
My great literary role-model was Angela Carter (except the bit about dying of cancer in her fifties…23rd January 2018 A new Swan Lake on the way
I hope your 2018 has got off to a flying start (no swan puns intended, honest, guv). Mine certainly has - ten-hour overnight flights to and from South Africa - and I've just come home to find that one of the articles I'm most thrilled to have penned recently is out.
It's for the Royal Opera House Magazine and it's all about the forthcoming new Royal Ballet production of Swan…21st December 2017 Merry Christmas - and here's to next year!
Dear supporters, readers and supporters-to-be,
I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, a restful festive season and a fabulous seeing-in of the new year 2018! Are you staying home, going out, going away? Sun, snow, Christmas markets? Nutcrackers, Hansel-and-Gretels, pantomimes, or, er, Swan Lakes?
I'm staying home and writing, as you may be surprised to hear (or not). I'll be devoting much…13th December 2017 What's in a name? Er, quite a bit...
An interesting development is propelling Meeting Odette in a new direction. As I mentioned last time, it's turning into a winter's tale, with a Christmas Carolesque slant to its magical side. The more I chip away at it, the more this new-look setting is building the story's inner strength - indeed, its whole point. Still, whatever I do to it, I realise I need to do a very great deal more…10th December 2017 Snow scenes
Some things remain as much of a thrill when you're (supposedly) grown up as they are in childhood. And one of them, along with sitting at the front on the top-level of a London double-decker bus, is watching the world turn white moment by moment in front of your nose as falling snow settles on the roofs, twigs and a few last brave leaves that are still hanging on. The magical transformation of…3rd October 2017 7 great reasons to support Meeting Odette that have nothing to do with swans
1. Meeting Odette is an allegory for the present. That refugee you see shivering in the water, struggling across barren lands - how can you know who she really is? Refugees have nothing and our society therefore sees them as nobody. This is both ridiculous and worse than inhumane. Supposing someone who arrives from the east with nothing but the clothes on her back turns out to be...a very unexpected…26th September 2017 Titles 102, anti romanticism and some extraordinary Sibelius
Hmm, my thoughts on a change of title for MEETING ODETTE don't seem to have gone over especially well. TAKING FLIGHT, apparently, sounds like a self-help book and has been used before in fiction, as has FLIGHT OF THE SWAN, which shows up either as a children's book or soppy romance.
I'd like to make one thing clear about MEETING ODETTE. Romance it ain't. And that's the curse of the swan. It's a…18th September 2017 What's in a name?
Above: a breakthrough?
Answer: quite a lot. Especially if it's not so much a name, but a title. A book has to have the right title. Can you imagine 'Gone with the Wind', 'Wuthering Heights' or '1984' being called anything else? A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but if you pick a title that doesn't resound, it's not going to do its content any favours.
I've been aware for…31st August 2017 New pledge level: a personal consultancy session! Plus: the next Pledge Party, and some ballet from a glorious Odette...
I hope you've had a wonderful summer. Mine has certainly been eventful. Over the past couple of years I've been working on a new "people's opera" called SILVER BIRCH with the wonderful composer Roxanna Panfunik, and in late July it was premiered at Garsington Opera. We had some fantastic reviews (The Times called my libretto 'powerful and poetic', spurring purring). And seeing this work…23rd July 2017 10 reasons you'll want to meet Odette
One month in and Meeting Odette is one third funded, which is brilliant news. Huge thanks to my 61 supporters who have stepped forward to pledge so far! Now we just need twice as many again to do likewise, preferably within the next few weeks... so please can I ask you all to share the link with any literarily, balletically, musically or fantastically inclined friends who might enjoy a feathery tale…7th July 2017 Hang on a mo...
[I feel a bit like this today...hiding head in despair]
...but what? You wait 25 years and suddenly someone else picks your topic too? For a Hollywood blockbuster? Oh. Flippin'. Heck.
I just stumbled across a piece of news on Twitter: Felicity Jones is to star in a movie based on the story of Swan Lake, without any ballet. No kidding. Read all about it here.
What are the chances…3rd July 2017 "I offered them swan terrine, but they were rather horrified..."
The wonderful oboist Nicholas Daniel alerts us to this report from BBC News Scotland from 2005, when the then-Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, found himself being cautioned over the death of a swan near his Orkney home. The unfortunate bird had struck a power line. ("Max" himself died last year and is much missed for his mercurial and outspoken personality as well as his…28th June 2017 Newly added: Launch Party pledge level!
I did something utterly terrible when I chose the pledge rewards to offer you. I forgot all about the party.
How could I? I mean, what is a book without its launch party? What is the point of a book if you can't celebrate its existence with wine and friends and good cheer? In this neck of the woods, the book is not an excuse for a party; the prospect of a party is the excuse…26th June 2017 "My beloved swan..."
It's not that Jonas Kaufmann's voice was absolutely essential to the first update on the Meeting Odette page. You never need any excuse to listen to him (at least, I don't). But the German tenor's Lohengrin is legendary and, let's face it, Swan Lake would be nowhere without Wagner's swanny opera. Stories often sprout on the backs of older stories, and that ballet is no exception.
Here's a video…23rd June 2017 Welcome to MEETING ODETTE
I used to have a recurring dream. I was in the library, looking for a book. I knew I'd seen it once before. I couldn't find it. It was a book of Swan Lake. I would always wake up knowing there was something inside it that I wanted, or needed, but I could never remember what it was.
(Pictured above: Natalia Osipova as Odette, photo by Gene Schiavone, Royal Opera House)
I had this dream…
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