Orfeo Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of Orfeo

Bored with music, composer Peter Els experiments with translating DNA into music, a move that makes him a terrorist in the eyes of the government. Composer Peter Els has spent his life in search of music that is transformative and unique. Once he retires from teaching, he almost randomly decides to draw on his college experiences as a scientist and try and craft bacteria that could be used as part of a new composition. He's convinced that he can use his bacteria creations in a way in which he could transform them into music. Which seems like an innocent enough idea. But when two police officers discover the lab he set up in his dining room, they call in the government and he is soon accused of being a potential biological terrorist.
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On the run, he begins to relive his life and you see the many mistakes he made along the way. He meets and falls in love with several amazing women, but even when he gets married and has a daughter, he is never satisfied. His desire to follow his muse and remain non-commercial and experimental costs him his marriage and ultimately his relationship with his daughter Sara. And when he creates something noteworthy--an opera that takes New York City by storm--he refuses to promote it and prevents it from ever being produced in the future. He is his worst enemy, both then and now.

As he drives across the country, he tries to reconnect with people from his past. Ex-wife Maddy, now living in St. Louis. His former rival and longtime collaborator Richard, who is now living in a nursing home in Arizona. Peter somehow manages to keep going and dodge the authorities, although he's become the government's most wanted man. He takes up Twitter and tweets comments about his life and his musical philosophy.

He finally ends up in California, at the house of his daughter Sara. She's now middle-aged and they reconciled several years ago. In fact, she's the been the one person who continues to look out for him. They talk one last time and as they reminisce about her childhood, they begin to play the piano again, for the first time since she was a girl. As they do, a SWAT team breaks down the front door and arrest a now contented Peter.
Best part of story, including ending: The story and the way the book is written matches the musical theme. It is very lyrical and gentle in a way that is very distinctive. I hesitate to describe the story as artsy--because that might scare off some people. But that's the best word to use for this beatiful story about music and redemption.

Best scene in story: At one point Peter recalls visiting England and running into Clara, the celloist he fell in love with in college. She broke his heart and in some ways he never got over her. She apparently feels the same way, but when given the chance to reconcile and start over, he shrugs and walks away in a fashion that reflects many of his decisions in life.

Opinion about the main character: Peter Els is one of those infuriating people who is both wildly talented and personally self-destructive. He has several chances for happiness and yet something inside himself forces him to be self-destructive in relationships. It's a frustrating trait that does make for a fasinating lead character.

The review of this Book prepared by Randy Anderson a Level 3 Eurasian Jay scholar

Chapter Analysis of Orfeo

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Plot & Themes

Tone of book?    -   thoughtful Time/era of story    -   2000+ (Present Day) Life of a profession:    -   scientist/scholar Is this an adult or child's book?    -   Adult or Young Adult Book Job/Profession/Status story    -   Yes

Main Character

Gender    -   Male Profession/status:    -   teacher Age:    -   60's-90's Ethnicity/Nationality    -   White (American) Unusual characteristics:    -   Genius


How much descriptions of surroundings?    -   2 () United States    -   Yes The US:    -   Northeast

Writing Style

Amount of dialog    -   roughly even amounts of descript and dialog

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Richard Powers Books Note: the views expressed here are only those of the reviewer(s).
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