Rhap­sody: A Novel

September 1, 2020

One evening in 1924, Katharine Kay” Swift‚ the rest­less but loy­al soci­ety wife of wealthy banker James War­burg and a seri­ous pianist who longs for recog­ni­tion‚ attends a con­cert. The piece: Rhap­sody in Blue. The com­pos­er: a bril­liant, elu­sive young musi­cal genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is trans­fixed, help­less to resist the mag­net­ic pull of George’s tal­ent, charm, and swag­ger. Their ten-year love affair, com­pli­cat­ed by her con­flict­ed loy­al­ty to her hus­band and the twists and turns of her own musi­cal career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stun­ning work of fic­tion, for fans of The Paris Wife and Lov­ing Frank, explores the time­less bond between two bril­liant, strong-willed artists. George Gersh­win left behind not just a body of work unmatched in pop­u­lar musi­cal his­to­ry, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, know­ing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mitchell James Kaplan

  1. Com­ment on the rela­tion­ship between Katharine Swift and her father. Were his expec­ta­tions of his daugh­ter ulti­mate­ly ben­e­fi­cial or harm­ful? In this con­text, dis­cuss Katharine’s dreams.

  2. Katharine and her moth­er are dis­sim­i­lar in many ways and sim­i­lar in oth­ers. Dis­cuss their atti­tudes toward career and motherhood.

  3. Dis­cuss James War­burg and George Gersh­win. How are they sim­i­lar? How are they dif­fer­ent? Con­sid­er their sense of eth­nic / reli­gious iden­ti­ty, their atti­tudes about the arts, and how they relate to women.

  4. Dis­cuss Katharine’s attrac­tion for James War­burg. What does she see in him? Is James the man she wants him to be (and vice-ver­sa)? In what ways is their rela­tion­ship mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial? In what ways is it lopsided?

  5. Dis­cuss Katharine’s attrac­tion for George Gersh­win. What does she see in him? Is Gersh­win the man she wants him to be (and vice-ver­sa)? In what ways is their rela­tion­ship mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial? In what ways is it lopsided?

  6. What does Europe rep­re­sent to James, Katharine, and George? What does Euro­pean music rep­re­sent? What does Amer­i­can music rep­re­sent? Dis­cuss their dif­fer­ing her­itages in this regard, issues of social class and eth­nic­i­ty, the con­cept of Amer­i­ca as melt­ing pot, and the dif­fer­ing ways music con­veys iden­ti­ty and emo­tion (jazz as opposed to classical).

  7. Kay has two friends who are them­selves remark­able women: Dorothy Park­er and Adele Astaire. She also retains affec­tion for the oth­er mem­bers of her per­form­ing group, the Edith Rubel Trio. Dis­cuss the impor­tance of these friend­ships for Kay, and their limitations.

  8. Dis­cuss how the major char­ac­ters of Rhap­sody per­ceive devel­op­ments in Euro­pean and Amer­i­can soci­ety dur­ing the Twen­ties and Thir­ties: the rise of Hitler, the Great Depres­sion, the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion, chang­ing con­cepts of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and chang­ing atti­tudes about sex­u­al­i­ty and identity.

  9. The 1920s and 30s were a peri­od when women, Blacks, and immi­grants (includ­ing Jew­ish immi­grants) made great strides in Amer­i­ca, cul­tur­al­ly, legal­ly, and polit­i­cal­ly. At the same time, it was a peri­od when insti­tu­tion­al misog­y­ny, racism, and anti­semitism were wide­spread. Dis­cuss the devel­op­ment of jazz in this con­text, as por­trayed in Rhapsody.

  10. As the first woman to com­pose a hit Broad­way musi­cal, Kay Swift broke an impor­tant glass ceil­ing” in the rough-and-tum­ble world of show busi­ness. She also com­posed a bal­let and became Staff Com­pos­er at Radio City Music Hall, among oth­er achieve­ments. Com­ment on Kay’s ambi­tion and accom­plish­ments, and the hur­dles she had to over­come (includ­ing oth­ers’ expectations).

  11. Dis­cuss George Gershwin’s rela­tions with famous Black artists includ­ing Duke Elling­ton, Fats Waller, and Luck­ey Roberts. Dis­cuss black­face, cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, and music as a medi­um of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between cul­tures. In this con­text, dis­cuss Por­gy and Bess.

  12. Kay, George, and James are all ambi­tious, dri­ven, and bril­liant. Does his­to­ry treat all three with the same degree of fairness?