The Vexations


By Caitlin Horrocks

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This “enthralling” debut novel and Wall Street Journal Top Ten Book of the Year circles the life of eccentric composer Erik Satie in La Belle Époque Paris and examines love, family, genius, and the madness of art (New York Times Book Review).

Erik Satie begins life with every possible advantage. But after the dual blows of his mother’s early death and his father’s breakdown upend his childhood, Erik and his younger siblings — Louise and Conrad — are scattered. Later, as an ambitious young composer, Erik flings himself into the Parisian art scene, aiming for greatness but achieving only notoriety.

As the years, then decades, pass, he alienates those in his circle as often as he inspires them, lashing out at friends and lovers like Claude Debussy and Suzanne Valadon. Only Louise and Conrad are steadfast allies. Together they strive to maintain their faith in their brother’s talent and hold fast the badly frayed threads of family. But in a journey that will take her from Normandy to Paris to Argentina, Louise is rocked by a severe loss that ultimately forces her into a reckoning with how Erik — obsessed with his art and hungry for fame — will never be the brother she’s wished for.

With her buoyant, vivid reimagination of an iconic artist’s eventful life, Caitlin Horrocks has written a captivating and ceaselessly entertaining novel about the tenacious bonds of family and the costs of greatness, both to ourselves and to those we love.


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A Simple Question

Which do you prefer:

Music or Ham?

—Erik Satie


— 1 —

Like a door opening

CONRAD DOESN’T HAVE THE KEY. HE STANDS AT HIS BROTHER Erik’s apartment door, waiting for one of Erik’s friends to pull it from a trouser or jacket pocket. It is 1925, and all the men are wearing suit jackets despite the July heat, despite the fact that everyone except Conrad is a composer or a musician, and Conrad had always supposed them to be a breed apart, unconcerned with propriety. The only composer he’s ever known personally was his brother, and how well did Conrad even know him? Not well enough for a key.

Erik’s friend Roger unlocks the door but does not open it. He steps aside, gesturing for Conrad to do the honors. No one has entered Erik’s apartment in the days since his death, and nearly no one in all the twenty-seven years he lived here. Conrad pauses to feel and then set aside the guilt of violation. With both dread and anticipation, he pushes the door ajar.

Dusty light filters in from the hallway, and slowly the contents of the apartment become visible: a great profusion of umbrellas and walking sticks; stacks of handkerchiefs (eighty-six, it will turn out); mountains of yellowed newspapers; a small table with a single chair; a battered piano. A wardrobe that, when they open it, will contain only six identical gray velvet suits. In the front hall sits a baffling gymnastic machine, like an insect of cracked rubber belts and leggy metal bars. Conrad steps in a pile of dog shit whose provenance is a mystery, since Erik never owned a dog. The waste is scentless, dried and crumbling. There is no stink, nothing on Conrad’s shoes except a light chalky powder.

The men move farther into the apartment, but there is no easy way to catalog Erik’s possessions under the filth. After some discussion, a couple of the friends leave to ask the building concierge for the loan of a broom, a dustpan, whatever else might be spared in memory of the neighborhood celebrity. Along with Roger, Conrad stays, searching in vain for some evidence as to how his brother could have emerged from this place every Sunday with his beard trimmed and collar white, standing on Conrad’s doorstep to be let in for dinner. He sits on a piano bench that groans under him, the joints gone so loose he stands again. Roger turns, frowning, even indignant, perhaps because Conrad knows nothing about music. Ignoring him, Conrad wonders if it should have been Philippe here with him instead. Or maybe not, because Philippe never knew anything about music, either. Conrad does not arrange his hand to make any particular sound, simply settles his fingers onto the white keys at the far right end of the keyboard. Roger winces, perhaps expecting a shrill, tinkling catcall, but no sound comes. Conrad taps, then pounds, his way up and down the keys. Silence.

Wordlessly, the two men lift the lid of the piano. Inside they find a morass of cut wires and scattered wooden hammers, the unstrung guts of the instrument mixed with drifts of paper, letters and unopened bills, notebooks and telegrams and pneumatiques. Conrad pulls the papers out by the handful, arranges them into piles on the piano bench, then gives up and allows them to scatter across the floor: empty, doodled-upon envelopes; drawings of tiny, elaborate castles; self-portraits of Erik wearing enormous spectacles; patent applications for inventions that never existed; a declaration of excommunication from a pretend church for a music critic; and hundreds of newspaper clippings, some so small they look like confetti, two-line notices of group shows or prizes, only some of them about Erik. Most of the names are unfamiliar to Conrad. They aren’t household names, although the men are all young enough to be aiming for it, and some of them may yet succeed. These are Roger’s friends, and he handles the scraps like relics, as if he sees in them proof that Erik cared about his acolytes, that surely he didn’t mean those things he’d said to them toward the end.

He did, Conrad thinks. He meant every word. And he is almost cruel enough to say it, to claw his brother back for himself. Ever since he was picked up this morning by Erik’s friends in Roger’s ludicrously bright yellow car, Conrad has been plagued by what he is only slowly allowing himself to acknowledge is jealousy. Erik would have dropped you soon enough, he thinks of the friends. But how could he possibly wish his brother any more alone than Erik already was? He doesn’t. He never did. Conrad has always wanted to believe that blood weighs more than music, but he knows that the metaphor, besides being off-kilter, is also probably untrue. Erik’s music, while light as laughter, was heavy enough to break even him in the end.

The piano keeps vomiting: steady letters from their sister, Louise. Earnest notes from Philippe: How are you, old friend? Tell me you’re well. Nothing from Suzanne, though why would there be? Even Erik didn’t expect to hear from her after she married someone else, and expectation was Erik’s constant state. No one could measure up. Not Suzanne, nor Philippe, nor Conrad, although he’d tried hardest and longest. The apartment is an accusation, but what more, really, could he have done?

Roger marvels over an exercise book that appears to contain some manuscript long since thought lost. “He said he left it on a bus,” Roger remarks, and neither of them knows whether Erik thought that was the truth, or whether he invented the bus so that everyone would stop asking him about an opera he didn’t know how to finish. Many of the pieces in the composition notebooks are only a few lines long, and Conrad can’t tell if they’re deliberate sketches—Erik often worked in miniature—or abandoned efforts. One loose-leaf page contains two lines of music and a note about how to prepare oneself to play the piece 840 times in succession, as if Erik would ever in a thousand years have had the patience to do such a thing.

The air, tight with dust and soot, is full of smells Conrad does not want to think too long about. He forces a window, nearly sealed shut with old paint and dirt. On hot days in Arcueil-Cachan, this industrial suburb south of Paris, the smog is so thick that sunlight tumbles down through it like a bird with its wings wrenched back. A fly careers in as soon as the window squeaks open, as if it has been waiting politely for an invitation. Conrad sneezes and searches his pockets for a handkerchief, then reluctantly takes one from what he hopes is a freshly laundered pile on the gymnastic device. When he blows his nose the mucus is grimy. He examines it, both giddy and guilty; he is alive, full of warm, gray snot, sneezing the sneezes of the living. But when he imagines Erik’s innards, his drink-sick liver and smog-choked lungs, his gratitude feels unseemly.

Conrad resumes his place on the piano bench and the two men listen to the silence, which is really the sound of their own breathing. They listen to the children shrieking in the street outside, the factory whistles and the scrabble of pigeons on the windowsills, the single loud fly buzzing near the ceiling. Roger joins Conrad at the piano and curls his fingers over the disconnected keys as if he’s holding something priceless, the only precious thing in the room. What notes are the right ones to fill this miserable space, to say hello and goodbye? Both men grope for some music that can fill death’s mute wake, as if a life is anything other than noise.


— 2 —

Looking at yourself from afar

TODAY THE BOY IS ORDINARY. NOT YET EXTRAORDINARY IN ANY way, not someone you might one day care to read about. The accomplishment he is most proud of is winning a neighborhood farting competition back in Paris, and he was the favorite in an upcoming belching contest. He is missing it right now, he realizes, as he calculates the hours eaten by the train carrying his newly diminished family north. There have been so many sadnesses it seemed there was not room for more. But now they all squeeze together in Eric’s heart to admit another: this lost chance at glory. He confides in his sister about the contest, a plea for sympathy.

“Mother would be ashamed of you,” Louise hisses.

Eric is a boy magnificently without shame, but Louise’s statement at least makes him think. Their mother wouldn’t exactly be pleased, he decides, but she would not be ashamed. He would still be her little monkey, and he hears his name the way she said it, the R at the top of her mouth, the sounds of her language soft like raindrops on a muddy yard. He sticks his hand in his armpit, directs farting noises at his sister. Louise rolls her eyes, asks their father to tell him to stop. Conrad ignores them both, pulling his hat on and off his head with single-minded determination. He is nearly four years younger than Eric, his hair still toddler-fine and sparse, floating in a staticky corona around his face. Louise is the middle child, but her gestures are a disapproving old woman’s, all wagging fingers and pursed lips. Eric loves her anyway. When she bossed the neighborhood children, he would always persuade them to take her back, let her play again. The neighborhood parents liked Louise because she could always be trusted to tattle when something risky was afoot. Little Mother, the woman in the next apartment called her, and Eric cringes when he thinks of this, as if the word has been said aloud, as if their father could hear him hearing it.

Their father, Alfred, is a lightning-struck tree. It is November of 1872. In September, the family contained a fourth child, Eric’s infant sister, and now it doesn’t. In October, the family had a mother, and now it doesn’t. Alfred slumps in a corner of the train compartment, staring out the window at the black-and-white cows in the endless yellowing fields. “I grew up here,” he says, his palm against the glass, and the children glare. They were supposed to grow up in Paris. They feel kidnapped, not by fate or by their mother’s death, but by the only person present enough to blame. “Do you remember your grandmother?” their father asks them. He licks his fingers and tries to smooth down Conrad’s hair. Conrad twists away, removes his left shoe and puts it on his hand. Louise shakes her head.

Eric announces he’s hungry and Alfred sighs and takes a red apple from his satchel. Eric has already bitten into it when Conrad squeals in protest, and their father orders the children to share, opening up his pocketknife and holding out the handle. Eric doesn’t move. He’s never sliced an apple before, and if his father wants it done on a moving train, surely he can do it himself.

“That’s all right,” Louise says. “I’m not hungry.”

For once Eric wants her to go back to her bossing ways, to explain to their father that children shouldn’t be cutting fruit on their own laps.

“Take it,” Alfred says sharply, his fingers pinched around the flat of the blade. Eric does, gingerly, and Alfred settles back into his seat. “You mustn’t act this way at your grandmother’s house,” he says. “She won’t have it.”

Eric follows his father’s gaze as it returns to the window. Nothing but bare fields, bled of color in early November, stolid cows, stark stone houses and barns. The train curves and water appears below an indentation in the fields.

“The Seine,” his father says. “All the way out here.”

Louise slips the knife from Eric’s hand, folds the blade away, and tucks it in her skirt. Eric imagines wrenching the window open and flinging the apple into the river, flinging himself alongside it, and bobbing all the winding way home. He imagines a note in a corked bottle: Please help. Kidnapped to Normandy. Cows everywhere. He stands and moves close to the window.

His father puts a hand on his shoulder, leans into his ear. “It’s flowing westward,” he says gently, almost a whisper. “To Honfleur, then out to sea.”

“Oh,” Eric says. Has his father guessed his plan? Eric looks down at his tooth marks in the apple, whose white flesh is already browning, and gives the rest to Conrad, who takes the apple with both hands, presses his face to it, and gnaws. Eric thinks of his imaginary note moving helplessly into the great nothing of the Atlantic: Please help. Cows.


In Honfleur, his grandmother Agnès assigns Eric and Conrad a single lumpy horsehair mattress in the attic. The garret windows rattle in the sea wind, salty air eating at their wooden frames. Everything about this town feels wrong, blown raw and new each morning. There is no warm smell of sewage on the river, no coal dust collecting over the sills and doorstep. Even the milk is grotesquely fresh, with a grassy, fleshy sort of taste. The butter is of a color and sweetness like fruit. It makes Eric gag.

“Too fresh?” his grandmother says scathingly. “How about that. And the wind? You’re half Scottish, you know, so you should be all right with the cold.”

This quickly becomes the retort for everything. Eric can’t complain about the draft in his room because of his mother’s Scottish blood. He can’t complain about the scratchiness of the linens, or Conrad’s sharp, jabbing toenails, because Scots wear rough tartans. He can’t complain about the food, because Scots eat oats and sheep stomachs. Since Normans are supposedly of hardy Viking stock themselves, the children are effectively never allowed to complain about anything.

Eric cuts triangles of newspaper, rolls them into horns, and pins them to Conrad’s knit sleeping cap. “Conrad the Pillager,” he announces, but Conrad just cries. The boy asks, incessantly, for his mother, and the sound pierces them all, a knife in apples. “I’ll smother you,” Eric says. “I will.”

For the first few days Alfred seems to be pretending they’re on holiday. He gives them tours, pointing out where Champlain set sail for the New World, but also the home where Jane, their mother, was visiting when they met; the ship brokerage where Alfred was employed; the hotel where Jane’s parents stayed to meet him before the wedding; the Anglican church where Eric was baptized, whereupon the devoutly Catholic Agnès shrieked that neither she nor God would forgive Jane for this. Agnès never did, and while God’s opinion could not be known for certain, no doubt Agnès considered Jane’s death a kind of proof.

The church Agnès would have preferred was St. Catherine’s. As the largest wooden church in France, it is also on the tour. The old stone one burned many centuries ago, in the Hundred Years’ War, their father explains, praising the local shipbuilders who, rather than wait for the war to be over, for the Church to allocate funds and masons and craftsmen for a new one, built with what they knew. It was all ax work, he says, the beams and the thousands of wooden shingles covering the roof and walls. Towering straight oaks, trees of a sort that can no longer be found in Normandy, were used for the nave, the oldest part of the church. There is an obvious lesson here, says Alfred, about resourcefulness, about initiative. “They didn’t wait for someone else to help,” he insists. “They made the best of things.”

“Well,” Eric says dismissively, “a hundred years is a long time to wait.”

“They didn’t know it would be a hundred years. And the war wasn’t really like that. It kept stopping and starting.” Eric senses his father’s impatience, as if Alfred knows he is not getting through. “They might have thought the war would be over in days, and they’d have all the stonemasons they wanted. No one knows these things when they’re living inside them. Wars only have their names put to them later.”

Eric can make no sense of a war lasting a century, of how long that might be. He can make no sense of a war fought with England, a place the family vacationed once, at the seaside in Brighton. A voice whispers in his head that his mother will be dead for a century, and a century after that, and all the centuries after.

That Eric’s own name will last a century after his death, a century at least, does not enter his mind. He does not feel born to fame, nor entitled to it. Greatness sounds like a lot of work, frankly, and he is not given to study, or to practicing his piano. But however long Eric’s name lasts, it will be longer than his mother’s, longer than his sister’s or his grandmother’s or his father’s. Conrad will one day publish a chemistry manual, so that his name will molder, if not in people’s consciousnesses, then indefinitely in the catalogs of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. But none of this has happened yet. Lives, like wars, carry names assigned to them only once they’re over.

St. Catherine’s sits on a slope overlooking the harbor, separated from its bell tower by a stone courtyard. The height of the tower invites lightning, and the largest wooden church in France is also the most vulnerable to fire. The family climbs the steps of the tower up to the small belfry. The roof shingling is green with moss, and there is a moist, rotting smell. Alfred lifts the children so they can see through the wooden window slats: the harbor, the town, the city of Le Havre across the narrow channel, all divided into dim narrow slices. In an effort to share a joke, their father tells Eric that the townspeople here call Le Havre “the city on the other coast.” But to Eric the distance looks vast enough for the name to be entirely appropriate. On the way back to his grandmother’s house, he whispers words of his mother’s English: “House, house, house,” he says, and does not think to say “home.” He traces the letters on his leg, his finger moving through the fabric of his pocket, an anxious charm against forgetting.


Their uncle, Alfred’s younger brother, insists on being called Osprey, in English, by everybody: the children, his parents, friends and business associates, and the passersby who wave at him in the Old Basin. He owns a boat there that never leaves its mooring, although he pays a sailor to look after it, keep the sails mended, ropes coiled, railings freshly varnished. On weekends and evenings, after he leaves his stationer’s shop, Osprey sits on the boat smoking his pipe. Alfred and the children occasionally join him, and Osprey teaches Eric how to tie knots while Louise and Conrad pretend to fish over the side with sticks and string. Osprey has a wife and three children of his own, but his wife bitterly resents the expense of the boat and rarely brings her children to see their cousins. Agnès and Alfred grouse about Osprey’s finances over dinner, their disapproval couched as concern for his family. This is the only thing that seems to console Agnès about her influx of Parisian grandchildren; there are now new people to whom she can complain.

When Osprey comes to Sunday dinner, Alfred rattles off old grievances, how Osprey used to short-sheet their bed, how he planted dead mice under the coverlet. And there was the time he placed under the covers a baked potato so hot that Alfred burned the bottom of his foot and limped for a week. Eric supposes he should feel loyal to his father, but mostly he feels embarrassed at his father’s feebleness at pranks. Alfred complains about misplacing his pocketknife, eyeing Osprey as if he might be somehow responsible for that, too. The main course is a briny lamb, raised on salt marshes near the coast, a local specialty Agnès prizes and the children loathe, and before it’s even finished Osprey retreats to the garden to smoke. Agnès soldiers on with dessert, an apple tart drenched in eggy custard. Eric tries extracting the apple slices, but his father makes him eat the entire quivering yellow square.

When Agnès finally excuses Eric from the table he finds Osprey sitting on a wooden bench in the back garden, tapping his pipe out and rubbing ash into the gravel with his shoe. “You’re still here,” the boy says, surprised.

Osprey asks him if he gets along with his brother and sister.


“Well, good for you.”

Eric feels that he’s disappointed his uncle. Both stare at their shoes. Osprey’s feet, Eric notices, are exceptionally large.

“Have you found the mermaid?” Osprey finally asks.

Eric shakes his head.

“Come for a walk.”

They leave by the back gate and circle around the block, passing the front of his grandmother’s house and turning left up a pedestrian stairway, one of many shortcuts that mount the steep slope rising from the harbor. The sides of the staircase are the ivy-covered walls of private gardens.

Halfway up Osprey pauses, looks around as if to mark his bearings, then pulls at the ivy, searching for something. “Here it is,” he finally says, and holds the vines aside.

Inlaid in the brickwork is a large brass plaque without words, just the relief of a mermaid, her tail curled into a J and her hair streaming down around it. She is topless, with rounded breasts and tiny nubs of nipples. The plaque is a weathered, greenish color, except for the golden breasts.

“Boys used to rub her for luck,” Osprey says. “They would pass her every day on the way to school, and there were little spells people would say, for extra luck, or to conjure the mermaid in real life.”

Eric isn’t sure if he’s allowed to rub the breasts. Is his uncle inviting him to carry on the game, or to mock the gullibility of the village boys?

“Go ahead,” Osprey says. “Make a wish.”

Eric thinks at the mermaid, harder and harder, until his brain feels the way his eyes do when he pushes on the lids. He strokes the mermaid’s hair, dabs the tip of his finger to the two fins at the end of her tail.

“Now you know the secret of the mermaid,” Osprey says. “You must be a good steward.”

That night Eric worries over what it means to be the steward of the secret of the mermaid. Should he share it with Conrad, or Louise? There are those bright scandalous breasts. There’s the risk that Louise might tell Agnès, and that Agnès will find some way to ruin it for everybody. Eric decides that he can wish hard enough for everyone. He’ll keep the secret to himself. Is that all right? he thinks into the air, imagining the darkness of a sea at night, the moonlight catching on the silver streaks of fish, a pale woman with a finned tail. He presses his hands to his eyes until she flickers into movement. Of course, she says. That’s fine.


The next morning their father is gone. “On the first train,” Agnès tells them at the breakfast table. “He’s…traveling.”

Eric sets aside a part of himself to be especially angry that his grandmother has rehearsed no better explanation than this. He does not really expect adults to be truthful with him, but surely they could take their lies more seriously.

“It’s impossible,” Agnès says. “A man trying to mother three children. That’s why I told him to bring you here.”

That afternoon she walks Eric to the shops in the town center. From a crisp envelope she unfolds a list of everything the school will require him to have: one mirror, two combs, a brush, a shoehorn, a prayer book, a glass and set of silverware, bed linens, twelve handkerchiefs, eight shirts, twelve cloth napkins, twelve small towels, six pairs of summer stockings and six winter. Three pairs of plain leather shoes. At the shoemaker Agnès orders three different sizes, the largest so big Eric needs two pairs of stockings and crumpled paper in the toe to keep his feet in them.

“So they won’t get outgrown before they get outworn,” she says.

For the shirts and towels and sheets, she buys yards of fabric. She does not buy the finest of anything, nor does she buy the cheapest. This, Eric thinks, is as much love as she has shown him.

“You can take flatware from the house,” she says. “And a glass.”

“Take it where?” Eric says.

She ignores him, but at the cabinetmaker she reads off precise dimensions for a box, absolutely no more than a quarter meter high. “I don’t know why,” his grandmother says, “but those are the instructions.”

“So they fit under the beds,” the cabinetmaker says. “Dormitory size. I’m sure we’ve got one ready-made. Do you want it delivered to the house or the school?”


  • "Marvelous . . . Was [Erik Satie] a prophet or a prankster? To its credit, Ms. Horrocks's novel doesn't venture an answer. Instead, it wonderfully embellishes the world through which Satie wandered like some kind of marooned alien visitor."—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
  • "Vivid...Enthralling...Arresting."—Seth ColterWalls, New York Times Book Review
  • "The Vexations builds to a devastating conclusion, but it's worth the pain for this unusual, quietly beautiful meditation on the work and strife behind art that has endured for generations."—Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
  • "Affecting . . . An engrossing debut . . . Horrocks writes enchantingly about the bohemian life of artists in Montmartre . . . Her language is lyrical and captivating . . . The novel reads like a finely composed piece of music, swiftly interweaving winsome sentences with period details and the characters who lived them. From the use of a pneumatic tube messaging system under the city to the introduction of the telephone, The Vexations presents itself as a window into a textured past made real and tangible for the reader . . . What's most extraordinary about The Vexations is the writing itself. There is the risk with historical fiction that the research will be heavy-handed, to the dilution of story. Horrocks's vast knowledge of French history and classical music is on display, but the bounty of information never overwhelms . . . The multiple points of view offer the reader perspectives and arcs another novel might otherwise deem too minor to allow; each character is compelling enough in their own right. In using various narrations, Horrocks shines a brighter light on la Belle Époque, showing the period was composed of people beyond the already established artists . . . This narrated mosaic illuminates how Satie's ambitions were shaped by or existed alongside those of his family and friends . . . The novel's ending, narrated by [Satie's sister] Louise, is what makes The Vexations as extraordinary as Erik himself. Louise closes by centering completely on his genius. Every sentence Horrocks writes is a stepping-stone to this apex, and satisfying to such a degree that the reader will have the urge to close the book and begin listening to Satie's music."—Rachel Duboff, Los Angeles Review of Books
  • "By writing her male virtuoso [Erik Satie] from the inside and outside, Horrocks creates a wrenching portrait of overconfidence as a destructive force."—Lili Meyer, The Atlantic
  • "I've rarely seen a debut as buoyant and inspired as Caitlin Horrocks's The Vexations. In language both champagne-clear and effortlessly lively, Horrocks plumbs the world of Erik Satie through those closest to him, the siblings, friends, and lovers who struggle to support and understand him even as his obsessions isolate and score him deeper than anyone can reach. As much about the vexations and impossibilities of life itself as about Satie's singular genius, this is a dazzling first novel from a writer to watch."—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
  • "In this melodic tale, first novelist Horrocks reimagines the rich ferment of fin de siècle Paris, with cameos by Cocteau and Debussy."—O, Oprah Magazine
  • "Horrocks's opening chapters are deeply affecting in their portrayal of childhood grief and are also among the novel's most vibrant, evoking the salt air and earthy people of the Norman coast while shifting between characters...Horrocks shines as she renders the Montmartre demimonde in Day-Glo colors, as provocative as a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas. Deftly she plumbs the singular zeal--and occasional neuroses--that drive artists toward achievement as well as self-destruction...Cameos from Jean Cocteau and Claude Debussy add sparkle...The Vexations explores grand themes with grace and conviction."—Hamilton Caine, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • "A beguiling debut . . . As a title, The Vexations befits a novel about the uncompromising genius of a man who by the end of his life appears to have alienated everyone he cared about. However, if this makes it sound like Satie is Horrocks's unique focus that would be misleading. The Vexations contains a richly arranged cast of characters, all of whom rub up against each other in the streets, cabarets, and cafés of Montmartre, Paris, on the cusp of the twentieth century. Most vivid among these are Satie's younger sister, Louise, and brother, Conrad . . . Horrocks's gliding prose scatters grace notes on every page. There is also a questing meditation on the nature of genius, expressed by Louise in her role as a teacher . . . Horrocks's version of Satie, despite or perhaps because of his many failings, emerges as a strangely heroic figure."—Tobias Grey, Financial Times
  • "A heartbreakingly beautiful novel about the sacrifices people make for what they hold dear."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "I've loved Caitlin Horrocks's work for a long time, so I am not surprised--though I am overjoyed--to find that she has written a gorgeous, sensitive, deeply immersive novel in The Vexations. You'll never hear the music of Erik Satie again without diving back into the layers of genius, torment, eccentricity, abandonment, and profound sadness that Horrocks so masterfully evokes in this beautiful book."—Lauren Groff, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies and Florida
  • "A finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art."—The Millions
  • "What a fabulous, original novel The Vexations is. Its unflinching honesty about an artistic world notable for both heart and heartlessness has given us a haunting, indelible story."—Joan Silber, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Improvement
  • "Horrocks paints an atmospheric portrait of bohemian Paris and a poignant one of Satie and his avant-garde circle, who "lived in the yet: not now, but soon" when their art would be recognized...Finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Horrocks shines while envisioning Erik scoring a silent film, debuting a masterpiece, or being released from jail (where he was held for defaming a reviewer) so he can complete a commission. Horrocks's description of Satie's music is also apt for her noteworthy novel: slow, spare, and at its best finely filigreed."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Genius blazes in this gorgeous and breathtakingly assured novel -- sometimes center-stage, sometimes in a corner -- but there are no satellites: seldom have I read a book about art that refuses so staunchly to treat any life as minor. The Vexations is a rare, engrossing, humane achievement."—Garth Greenwell, National Book Award nominee for What Belongs to You
  • "The Vexations does what the best historical fiction must: it takes us beyond biography to the secret intimacies that make up a life. We're granted access not just to the full and heartbreaking life of Erik Satie, but to a range of vibrant, deeply human characters -- his wounded sister, Louise; his dutiful brother, Conrad; and the visionary artists in his circle at the Chat Noir. Among these is a young poet named Philippe, whose work Satie sets to the piano, though Satie's 'arrangements didn't highlight his poetry so much as make it strange.' In this ambitious, surprising, and immensely moving novel, Caitlin Horrocks does the same for the music of Erik Satie, making it strange, making it new."—Eleanor Henderson, New York Times bestselling author of Ten Thousand Saints
  • Praise for THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY:

    "Wildly entertaining... These are delicate, character-driven stories whose distinct narrators demonstrate the hand of a remarkably versatile writer...Caitlin Horrocks is writing well beyond her years, not only raising our expectations of what a story can do but also setting a high standard for any debut fiction author."—Wayne Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Startlingly ingenious writing...Many of the stories have a note of what could be called sprightly heartbreak...Horrocks's is a formidably promising imagination."—Richard Eder, Boston Globe
  • "Impressively sharp...Appealingly rugged-hearted...Though diverse in style and point of view, Horrock's stories share one consuming fixation. We live in a world studded with cruelty...But she deploys love and humor as convincingly as dread."—Robin Romm, New York Times

On Sale
Jul 30, 2019
Page Count
464 pages

Caitlin Horrocks

About the Author

Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the story collection This Is Not Your City and the novel The Vexations, a Wall Street Journal Top Ten Book of the Year. She is a recipient of the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and the Plimpton Prize. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Tin House, and One Story, among other magazines, and has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories. She lives with her family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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