Skip to main navigation Skip to main content

Tickets are available for Graywolf Literary Gala in Minneapolis on September 19. For more details about the event or to make a gift in honor of our 50th anniversary, click here

Book Title

Bitter Water Opera

A Novel
Author 1
Nicolette Polek
In 1967, the dancer Marta Becket and her husband were traveling through Death Valley Junction when they came across an abandoned theater. Marta decided it was hers. She painted her ideal audience on its walls and danced her own dances until her death five decades later. 
In the present day, Gia has ended a relationship and taken a leave from her job in film studies at a university. She is sleeping fifteen hours a night and ignoring calls from her mother. In a library archive, she comes across a photo of Marta Becket and decides to write her a letter. Soon Marta magically appears in her home.
Gia hopes Marta Becket will guide her out of her despair. But is Marta—the example of her single-minded, solitary life—enough? Through precise, vivid vignettes, Bitter Water Opera follows Gia as she resists the urge to escape into herself and struggles to form a lasting connection to the world. Her search has her reckoning with a set of terrifying charcoal drawings on her garage walls, a corpse in the middle of a pond, a crooked pear sapling, and other mysterious entities before bringing her to Marta’s theater, the Amargosa Opera House. There in the desert, Gia finds one answer.
In this brief, astonishing novel, Nicolette Polek describes an individual awakening to faith while exploring our deepest existential questions. How do we look beyond ourselves? Where do words go? What is art for?

Share Title

List Price
Publication Date
Publication Date
Trim Size
Trim Size
5 x 7.5
An electrifying debut novel about art, solitude, family, and faith in a world without it

About the Author

Nicolette  Polek
Credit: Photographer Credit / Jordan Castro
Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press, 2020). She is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, and a masters from Yale Divinity School. She is from Northeast Ohio.
More by author


  • “Polek elegantly fashions an ode to small and privately felt moments of beauty, and to art’s capacity to reach through time.”The New Yorker
  • “The novel’s prose is sharp and precise, its metaphoric wisdom restrained and careful, its power deep and arresting. One of the great yardsticks for a work of art may be how long it lingers after it’s finished, and Opera simply will not leave; it sparks a lasting perceptual shift. . . . This novel is a lovely, delicate feat, and a must-read.”—Dashiel Carrera, Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “This is not fan mail to the dead so much as a summons to come back to life. . . . [Polek's] vignettes, fine as grains of sand, come together to create an emotional landscape as vast and moving as the Mojave.”—Kassia Oset, The Rumpus
  • “How can one escape domestic dread and manic commercialism? Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek attempts an answer. . . . Gia learns to discard the anxious ‘hyperawareness’ of modern living in favor of instinct and acceptance.”—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
Back to Table of Contents