Who knew canaries were taught songs? And who knew there were mechanical devices called serinetes that, when cranked by hand, taught new melodies to London Fancys, Yorkshire Spangles, Norwich Yellows, the Greens, the Cinnamons, and more? And, for that matter, who knew there were so many kinds of canaries?
Laura Stanfill, Portland writer (and publisher of Forest Avenue Press), obviously knows and her charming debut novel, “Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary,” centers on a 19th-century French serinette maker whose life is dictated by traditions of craft, music , and family.
Our story — and this is how Stanfill presents her tale — is told with moments of fantasy and many moving parts and characters. Henri Blanchard is a third-generation serinette maker, who follows his father (Georges) and grandfather (whom we know only as Monsieur) in their instrument-making endeavors in the French village of Mireville.
Stanfill gives us the important back story first. Georges’ birth affected everyone in Mireville. As Georges was a colicky baby, Monsieur developed an early dislike for his son because his constant crying made it difficult to properly produce a perfectly pitched serinette. On a grander scale, when Georges stopped crying the sun appeared over the village where before it had always rained.
From then on, Georges was considered by grateful villagers to have a special power and became forever known as the Sun-Bringer. This mystical quality, however, did little to improve his father’s respect for his son. Inter Georges dutifully helped with the business as he grew up and eventually planned to accompany Monsieur to New York City to deliver a large order of serinettes to a wealthy client but, at the last moment, Monsieur insisted that Georges go to America alone, which he did.
Upon meeting Mrs. Delia Dumphries Stanton, Georges’ life took a turn. Delia, whose marriage was less than ideal, focused most of her attention on her canaries and their songs. This was the first time that Georges actually heard canaries, a moving experience for him, and after a warm invitation from Delia and with the blessing of his father, he stayed for several months in the Stanton’s mansion. Having a young man in her home, however, proved too tempting for the unhappily married Mrs. Stanton and for Georges, and after an inevitable romantic coupling Georges, in a fit of guilt, suddenly returned to France.
Here our story takes off: Back in Mireville Georges marries his sweetheart and soon they have a son whom they call Henri. Henri grows up with a cadre of friends and life is good until one day he discovers a cache of letters hidden by his father which reveal that Henri has an American half-brother. Much occurs after this including a mysterious murder resulting in Henry being imprisoned, later freed by his friends, and finally escaping to America.
Stanfill’s lyrical phrasing sings along with the musical themes that fill these pages (“Henri was not a grace note at all, but the music of his life”) and creates a narrative that engages and entertains the reader. Her words are enchanting and fit the story well.
Yet no novel is perfect. In “Stylish Canary” one questions how the characters seem so little affected by historical events of their day (war, revolutions, cholera) and some events are farfetched (how could Henry’s friends break him out of jail without consequence?).
These quibbles aside — this is, after all, a kind of fairy tale — Stanfill’s debut is a delight as it circles around questions of family, friendships, and the choices we make. Lovers of music, France, and good storytelling will find much to enjoy in “Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary,” and in these dark times, joy is worth seeking out.
Laura Stanfill presents “Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary” at 7 pm April 21 at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.