“The Melody of Secrets”
Author: Jeffrey Stepakoff
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
Price: $24.99 (Cloth)
After finishing an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon, Stepakoff went to work in television writers’ rooms in Hollywood. He honed his storytelling abilities working with “The Wonder Years,” “Sisters” and finally “Dawson’s Creek” where he was co-executive producer. Stepakoff has written of his TV adventures in an entertaining and knowledgeable insider book, “The Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek…”
Tiring of the pace and stress, Stepakoff changed career directions and accepted a teaching post at Kennesaw State University. Since then he has staked out new territory in a trio of novels. These are best described, I think as love stories—not Harlequin romances, formulaic and predictable, not strictly chick lit—young assistant in the city, “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” but not “Anna Karenina” either.
Think more in terms of “Love Story” or “The Notebook” or “The Bridges of Madison County.” Stepakoff’s novels , like many of these, involve lovers who meet at inconvenient times and places, usually not free to pursue the relationship openly but desperately attracted to one another anyway, sometimes parted by circumstances and getting a second chance.
Maria Reinhardt, our heroine, lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her rocket scientist husband, Hans, and her 12-year-old boy, Peter. The year is 1957. Maria is shocked by the segregation around her.
Down in Florida, the Navy’s vanguard rocket is failing test after test, exploding on the pad. America is in a state of anxiety. The Soviet’s Sputnik passing overhead reminds our military of the Russians’ ability to launch an ICBM.
Now the Pentagon, in desperation, will give the go-ahead to Juno, being developed at Redstone Arsenal by Werner von Braun and 117 other German scientists. This technology is based on the V2 rocket these same scientists were developing in Nordhausen and sending into London.
Stepakoff brings up a number of issues , many quite debatable, that raise this novel above romance.
Hans Reinhardt likens the rocket to a blade: a life-saving scalpel in one man’s hands, a killer’s weapon in another. Knives don’t kill people; people kill people.
At Nordhausen, did these scientists know their rockets were made with slave labor, the families of the workers having been sent to the death camps? Did they know civilians in Britain were the targets? Were the scientists Nazis? SS?
Hans denies everything. Science was his only passion.
Does Maria really want to know? Does anyone?
Senior Intelligence officer Colonel Adams puts it this way: “Americans gladly forego the public debate…what Americans really want is security.”
Maria, a brilliant violinist, concertmaster of the nascent Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, believes Hans. Some German wives know exactly what their husbands did. Others less.
And Maria has a secret of her own, of course. Twelve years earlier, in 1945, an American pilot named James Cooper crashed near her cottage while bombing Nordhausen. She helped him escape after a brief, very intense love affair.
Now, at a fundraiser for the Symphony, not only do George Wallace and Senator John Sparkman walk in the door but so does Major James Cooper, now an Air Force test pilot.
Stepakoff is a smooth storyteller. Will Maria re-unite with Cooper? Will she investigate Hans’ past? Will she become a civil rights activist? Will the symphony flourish? Will we put men in space?. Some answers we know; others, Stepakoff will answer for us.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”