While her mother lies dying from cancer in a hospice, Coriola, M.J. Fitzgerald’s protagonist, facing mid-life and pregnant with her lover’s child, examines her past, committing both memories and reflections to paper. Her thoughts shift abruptly from present to past, then forward, then back once more--like the sudden turns in melody a concertina makes--while the author looks over her shoulder, occasionally relating events that will occur when Coriola too dies from cancer at age seventy-five.

Coriola’s story is grim, even bleak: quarreling parents, a seduction at sixteen by a lesbian riding instructor, a seven-year battle with anorexia, a period stripteasing in a nighttime bar while pursuing an acting career, a five-year affair with an abusive playwright she later learns was her mother’s lover and brother, until at last, after considerable emotional struggle, she gains happiness with her new lover, the son of the physician who cured her adolescent disorder.

Plot aside, CONCERTINA is not for the inattentive. Its shifts from past to present to future demand close reading. Fitzgerald plays fair, noting Coriola’s age at every turn, but one lapse from the reader can lead to moments of prolonged confusion.

Yet the novel rewards such labor. Fitzgerald’s story is a moving one; some scenes are very powerful, and, ultimately, the heroine wins the reader’s respect without resorting to sentimentality. Having locked her heart away for nearly half her life, she finally finds emotional freedom in reawakened feelings for her lover and their infant daughter. The reader closes the book, shaken.