The Orphan’s Song

January 1, 2013

Venice, 1736. When fate brings Vio­let­ta and Mino togeth­er on the roof of the Hos­pi­tal of the Incur­ables, they form a con­nec­tion that will change their lives for­ev­er. Both are orphans at the Incur­ables dream­ing of escape. But when the res­i­dent Mae­stro notices Violetta’s voice, she is select­ed for the Incur­ables’ world famous coro, and must sign an oath nev­er to sing beyond its church doors. After a dec­la­ra­tion of love ends in heart­break, Mino flees the Incur­ables in search of his fam­i­ly. Known as the city of masks “ 

Venice is full of secrets, and Mino is cer­tain one will lead to his long-lost moth­er. With­out him, the walls close in on Vio­let­ta and she begins a dan­ger­ous and for­bid­den nightlife, hop­ing her voice can secure her free­dom. But nei­ther finds what they are look­ing for until a haunt­ing mem­o­ry Vio­let­ta has sup­pressed since child­hood leads them to a shock­ing confrontation.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of G.P. Putnam’s

  1. At the begin­ning of the nov­el, a young Vio­let­ta thinks to her­self Nev­er be a moth­er” (p. 9). Why does she decide this? Does her under­stand­ing of moth­er­hood change through­out the nov­el? How does she feel at the end?

  2. What does the ospedale mean to Vio­let­ta? What does it mean to Mino? How is life as an orphan dif­fer­ent for Vio­let­ta than it is for Mino?

  3. Why does Vio­let­ta believe she can’t leave the ospedale to be with Mino? Does Mino under­stand her choice? Do you think you would make the same deci­sion Vio­let­ta made? Why or why not?

  4. Why does Mino betray Vio­let­ta before he flees the ospedale? Were you sur­prised by his actions? How does this choice change Mino and Violetta’s relationship?

  5. Why does Vio­let­ta decide to begin singing at La Sirena?

  6. Why do you think Vio­let­ta feels so pow­er­ful­ly drawn to Fed­eri­co? What did you think of Fed­eri­co when you first met him? Did your opin­ion of him change by the end of the novel?

  7. Why is Mino drawn to Ana? How does Ana change Mino’s sense of pur­pose? Does she change the way Mino feels about Violetta?

  8. Do you think it’s pos­si­ble to love two peo­ple at once? Why or why not?

  9. Car­lo tells Mino Fools like us? Once we love, it’s for­ev­er” (p. 251). What does he mean? Do you think this is true for Mino? Do you think it’s true for you?

  10. For Vio­let­ta, there is one song that opens her heart and allows her to con­nect with her voice and the pow­er of music. What is it about this song that speaks to her so pow­er­ful­ly? Is there a song that has impact­ed you similarly?

  11. Dis­cuss this quote from p. 301: Life was like music; if you changed a sin­gle note, you changed the entire song.” What does this mean? Do you think it’s true? Do you think Mino and Vio­let­ta chose their paths, or do you believe they were fat­ed to find one anoth­er again?

  12. Why does Mino return to La Sire­na in the end? Do you agree with his decision?

  13. Were you sur­prised by the novel’s end­ing? Why or why not?

You can find the pub­lish­er’s book club kit here.

Q&A with Author Lau­ren Kate

  1. What inspired you to write The Orphan’s Song?

    A few years ago, I was in Venice on a book tour. My fam­i­ly trav­eled with me, so I’d race home from events to nurse my son, kiss my daugh­ter before she went to sleep, and relieve my hus­band of car­ing for two jet­lagged tod­dlers under three. One night my event ran late, and by the time I left the book­store, the wind was bru­tal, the city flood­ed with aqua alta—high tide. I splashed toward what I hoped was my flat on the Alley of the Incur­ables, turn­ing down one nar­row cob­ble­stone cor­ri­dor, then another.

    At last, I saw three words chis­eled on a mas­sive building’s stone facade—Ospedale degli Incur­abili. Hos­pi­tal of the Incur­ables. I’d been curi­ous about this name all week, but sud­den­ly, I had to know: What was this place? Who were the Incur­ables? I cir­cled the com­pound and, even­tu­al­ly, three more desert­ed Dor­so­duro alleys led me home. But long after my chil­dren were tucked in, I was still think­ing about the Incurables.

    Research revealed that the Ospedale degli Incur­abili—which now hous­es a fine arts col­lege — was orig­i­nal­ly a hos­pi­tal and orphan­age for foundling chil­dren, dat­ing back to the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry. For hun­dreds of years the Incur­ables took in orphans and raised them to be musi­cians. The Incur­ables became one of the orig­i­nal music con­ser­va­to­ries, whose musi­cians drew audi­ences from around the world — and each one of its stu­dents had been aban­doned as a child.

    A nov­el had come knocking.

  2. Are any of the char­ac­ters based on real-life his­tor­i­cal fig­ures? How much of this nov­el is true to his­to­ry and how much is your own inven­tion?

    The mae­stros fea­tured in the nov­el — Anto­nio Vival­di and Nico­la Por­po­ra — are two of the famous Baroque musi­cians who real­ly did teach at and com­pose for the ospedali. The orphan char­ac­ters are my own inven­tion, though many of their names are plumbed from ospedali records. The girls were known by the instru­ments they played: Lau­ra of the Vio­lin, Giusti­na of the Angel’s Voice, Olivia of the Oboe.

    Violetta’s char­ac­ter is in some ways root­ed in my daugh­ter (intel­li­gent, focused yet dreamy, full of long­ing), and Mino’s char­ac­ter is root­ed in my son (gen­er­ous, fun­ny, open to all man­ner of mis­chief). Both my chil­dren are musi­cal­ly inclined.

  3. The nov­el is told from both Violetta’s and Mino’s per­spec­tives. Was one voice eas­i­er for you to write? Why or why not?

    At first, The Orphan’s Song seemed like Violetta’s sto­ry. I didn’t even intend to write from the split per­spec­tive, but when I start­ed out­lin­ing the sto­ry and made the choice to give half of it to Mino, I remem­ber hav­ing to sell this idea to my edi­tor. She wasn’t sure Mino’s side could be as endear­ing as Violetta’s. I sup­pose her feed­back felt like a chal­lenge, so I poured myself into Mino’s sto­ry in the first draft. As it turned out, his chap­ters came out far more eas­i­ly than Violetta’s, whose inte­ri­or­i­ty I had to dive deep into in sub­se­quent drafts to get right. Mino wears his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty open­ly, and Vio­let­ta cloaks hers — and though I relate more to Violetta’s style, it was some­how more dif­fi­cult to get onto the page.

  4. What kind of research did you do to write this book?

    I went back to Venice and spent ten days with Venet­ian his­to­ri­ans, musi­cians, and care­tak­ers of the for­mer orphan­ages. I vis­it­ed all four of the orig­i­nal ospedali and half dozen muse­ums that now house the paint­ings once hung in ospedali aps­es. I attend­ed a dif­fer­ent Venet­ian per­for­mance of Vivaldi’s Four Sea­sons for each night of the week. I tried on Car­ni­val dis­guis­es in dusty shops and brought a few of the best masks home. I fell more deeply in love with Venice than I imag­ined possible.

    Back in Los Ange­les, I took vio­lin lessons and became a con­stant patron of the LA Phil­har­mon­ic. I explored the music and research libraries at UCLA, read­ing Casanova’s mem­oirs and Vivaldi’s musi­cal the­o­ry. I bought Venet­ian cook­books and stirred a lot of polen­ta, a ruby-hued Spritz in hand.

  5. What’s your favorite thing you learned about Venice? What do you think your read­ers should know about the city?

    Near­ly every fas­ci­nat­ing detail I uncov­ered felt intrin­sic to Vio­let­ta and Mino’s sto­ry. First, that masks were worn by most of Venice’s pop­u­la­tion most days of the year — not just to mas­quer­ades, but to shop for fish at the mar­ket, to call on the Doge at his palace, to drop into a book­shop and pick up the lat­est Mon­tesquieu novel.

    Add to this the fact that it was con­sid­ered gauche to be seen out with your spouse. Masked men went gam­bling with masked mis­tress­es; masked women went to the opera with masked beaus (the Venet­ian term for these boyfriends/​servants was cicis­beo.) Some of my favorite anec­dotes fea­ture a gen­tle­man out on the town, hav­ing a gay time with a masked woman, only to real­ize at the end of the night, when he raised her mask for a kiss, that the lady was his wife.

    It’s not a stretch to imag­ine the num­ber of ille­git­i­mate preg­nan­cies that result­ed — which led to the increased neces­si­ty for orphan­ages. Venice did not just feed and house these orphans. They taught them the most use­ful Venet­ian trade: to play and sing music for the church. 

    Over time — who can explain it, oth­er than mag­ic? — these orphan musi­cians became vir­tu­osos who made vast amounts of mon­ey for the church, attract­ing the most illus­tri­ous Baroque com­posers as their teach­ers (Vival­di and Por­po­ra, among oth­ers). By Violetta’s day, orphan girls like her were the most famous musi­cians in the world. Wealthy patrons trav­elled from all over Europe to see them, yet they were allowed no free­dom out­side the orphan­age walls.

    Who wouldn’t ask for more?

  6. You write so beau­ti­ful­ly about music and singing. Are you a musi­cian? What role has music played in your own life? Why did you decide to write a nov­el about musi­cians?

    I regret nev­er hav­ing learned to play an instru­ment or read music as a child, but I stud­ied bal­let for twen­ty years, so music is phys­i­cal­ly ingrained in me. I’m mar­ried to a musi­cian and we are rais­ing two musi­cians. In our house late­ly, we play Beethoven’s string quar­tets at break­fast, Lee Hazel­wood and Nan­cy Sina­tra on the way to school, Bill With­ers at din­ner, Stephin Mer­ritt when we’re swim­ming, and Lee Mor­gan when the kids are falling alseep.

    My six-year-old daugh­ter Matil­da has a killer singing voice. She loves Mor­ris­sey and Michael Jack­son. My five-year-old son Venice (yes, after the city) is inter­est­ed in song lyrics, par­tic­u­lar­ly what love means in every con­text. He’s been teach­ing him­self to play Eleanor Rig­by” on our upright piano. We have gui­tars scat­tered around the house and make up songs about what we’re doing.

    When I wrote The Orphan’s Song, I lis­tened to Vivaldi’s sacred con­cer­tos, Handel’s arias from the baroque opera Giulio Cesare, and Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe, per­haps the most recent genius to build a bridge between sacred and sec­u­lar music.

    George Har­ri­son said there’s an inner music every soul pos­sess­es,” and in some ways I think what we love about those we love is the fun­da­men­tal music of their souls. The Orphan’s Song is about music because Venice is about music, espe­cial­ly in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. But the idea of writ­ing about music appealed to me for many inef­fa­ble rea­sons — lovers whose bod­ies har­mo­nize. The dis­so­nance of emo­tion­al pain. The uni­ver­sal lan­guage and ethe­re­al nature of music. How it only requires your body to make. It’s the art form all the oth­ers use to explain themselves.

    There is a con­jur­ing qual­i­ty to music, a call to spir­i­tu­al action. Cer­tain musi­cians gen­er­ate a swirling atmos­phere of eros they can’t have planned before­hand. Some­thing essen­tial derives from and is ignit­ed by music, as if we spring from and return to it.

  7. You’re known for your New York Times best­selling young adult books, includ­ing Fall­en, which was recent­ly released as a major motion pic­ture. Why did you decide to write an adult nov­el? What was dif­fer­ent about the writ­ing process for you? Has any­thing about this next step sur­prised you?

    One gets to go through the exis­ten­tial shift of becom­ing a moth­er but once. When I got the idea for the Orphan’s Song, I had very recent­ly had two chil­dren in very close prox­im­i­ty. I was inter­est­ed in the same top­ics I’ve always been inter­est­ed in: sex and romance, fam­i­ly and rela­tion­ships, how all these things come togeth­er to inspire iden­ti­ty — but in young adult fic­tion, sex and babies are issues” as opposed to aspects of a life. I want­ed to explore the kind of sex­u­al­i­ty that nat­u­ral­ly leads to babies, mar­riage, and fam­i­ly with­out becom­ing cliff’s edges in the sto­ry. My char­ac­ters haven’t got­ten any old­er, but in the Orphan’s Song they’re able to inhab­it dif­fer­ent stages of life than in my pre­vi­ous books.

  8. While The Orphan’s Song is set in Venice in the 1700s, Vio­let­ta is in many ways a woman of our time. What do you hope con­tem­po­rary read­ers will take from her sto­ry?

    At the start of the nov­el, Vio­let­ta faces a false dialec­tic: choos­ing love or forg­ing her own path. She thinks that to be with Mino means giv­ing up on the dream of a cel­e­brat­ed life, where pub­lic adu­la­tion might fill the hole made by grow­ing up unwant­ed. Mino, on the oth­er hand, always want to fill that hole with fam­i­ly. He would sac­ri­fice just about any­thing in ser­vice to those he loves. Though he’s reluc­tant to con­front it, he under­stands Violetta’s dilem­ma. He’s a musi­cian and Violetta’s biggest fan. He takes on her dilem­ma as his own. 

    Like many women, I’m con­front­ed with a sim­i­lar dilem­ma every day. For a piece of every day I’m Vio­let­ta. I close the door to my office and I’m not to be dis­turbed. Then, when my block of writ­ing time is done, I swing open the door, throw back my head, and I’m Mino, delight­ing (usu­al­ly) in the demands of fam­i­ly life and love.

  9. Did you know from the begin­ning where Vio­let­ta and Mino’s rela­tion­ship would lead, or were there moments that sur­prised you? With­out giv­ing any­thing away, did you always know how the sto­ry would end?

    I had a vision for the cli­max of the nov­el, but I always leave a lot of open space for my char­ac­ters to rebel against my plans. When I got to the end­ing, the action looked fair­ly close to how I had imag­ined it, but I couldn’t antic­i­pate how it would make my char­ac­ters feel. In oth­er words, I knew what they would do, but not what it would mean to them, and that made all the difference.

  10. What’s next for you?

    Three pros­ti­tutes solv­ing a mys­tery on the front­lines of the Civ­il War.