Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustavWhat I thought:

I am still trying to collect my thoughts on this book. I don’t actually give star ratings on my blog, as I have often found that after reflecting on a book for a few days (even weeks or months) my view changes (some become books that I have forgotten so easily, and others that I didn’t initially think were utterly fantastic can refuse to let me go and I find myself thinking about them long after the last page was turned). So, now to my point: while reading this book, I could easily have awarded anywhere between 2.5 and 5 stars depending on which point in the book I was at. A quandary indeed.

The Gustav Sonata is set in Switzerland and spans 60 years, starting in the years after WW2. Split into 3 parts (like a sonata) it follows first two young boys, Gustav and Anton (one Christian, one Jewish), and their blossoming friendship, then going back 10 years the book takes on Gustav’s parents relationship and we discover the reasons for Gustav’s mother’s aloofness towards her son, and finally, we are taken a long way forward in time to when the boys are grown up.

Gustav’s story is one of loneliness and longing. A dead father and a distant mother, with whom he spends his life trying to make love him, and his need to please everyone around him, usually for nothing in return, is incredibly sad. I had a profound sense of Gustav’s isolation and yearning for acceptance. I particularly liked the second part, however, which focused on Gustav’s parents and his father’s part in saving Jews, which his mother Emilie blames his death on. This gave me more of an insight into Switzerland’s part (or non-part) in the war, and one I would like to know a lot more about. As a country, it may not have been involved, but its people still lived in fear of being dragged into it and its repercussions have reverberated since.

I’m not sure how I would sum this book up if I’m honest. There were themes of war, friendship, love, mental health, homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, loneliness and hope. It was harrowing but never sentimental.  It was, ultimately I believe, a story of the issues of identity and its consequences.


I loved this book and was moved by it, and yet there were parts that left me strangely cold. The boys, as adults, seemed hardly to have matured at all which is a shame and in terms of character development, I didn’t feel there really was any. Or perhaps that was the point? The blurb talks about the book being about friendship but I found it very one-sided, and never really felt the friendship in maybe the way I was intended to. That said, I would still highly recommend this book: Rose Tremain is a fantastic writer.

Have you read this book? What did you think?


3 thoughts on “Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

  1. I’m pleased to hear you would recommend this book even if you didn’t love everything about it. I’ve read some of Rose Tremain’s other books – Restoration and Merivel – and enjoyed them, so I’m definitely interested in reading this one.


  2. Pingback: The Book Whisperer’s Month in Review – March 2017 | The Book Whisperer

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