In her atmospheric second novel, Balint (The Salt Letters ) fictionalizes the meteoric rise of Harriet Smithson, a real 19th-century actress who, like her parents, was "called" to the stage from an early age. As a child, acting comes naturally to lonely Harriet, whose parents—traveling Shakespearean dramatists—leave their daughter in the care of a priest in County Clare, Ireland. By the time she's 18, she's on the stage in London, serving her apprenticeship in the theaters of Drury Lane. She goes on to wider fame when she moves her entourage to Paris, where composer Hector Berlioz is her most ardent fan, Harriet's stage presence inspiring him to write his most famous work, the Symphonie Fantastique . The two are eventually married, but trouble lies ahead for them, revealed in fictional letters written by Harriet to her son. Balint's research is painstaking, and she delicately recreates the theater world of London and Paris in the early 19th century. In a lesser novelist's hands, the fragmented narrative and frequent time shifts might have felt choppy, but instead they add delicious tension to this portrait of the difficult relationship between Berlioz and his erstwhile muse. Agent, Maria Massie at Witherspoon Associates. (Aug.)
Forecast: Fans of Balint's critically acclaimed debut will appreciate this sophomore effort, as will the small but loyal segment of readers who are interested in the theater and theater history.