The Weight of a Piano: A Novel by Chris Cander

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“Now, stop with the crying before your misery becomes contagious.”

The Weight of a Piano is a heavy one in this latest novel by Chris Cander. The story begins with Julies Blüthner (maker and founder of Blüthner piano and factory in Leipzig Germany)  walking through the forest high in the Romanian mountains searching for the perfect tree for his creations. One such piano will be given to Ekaterina “Katya” Dmitrievna when she befriends a sad, elderly German musician. “The music was proof of his torment. He was a monster, a demon, and ogre. Katya loved him.” So too begins her passion for music, and her talent leads her to become herself a musician as she grows up in the Soviet Union. The piano becomes as much the love of her life as anyone. Then she meets Mikhail Zelden, whose studying civil engineering, ‘very important work’, and wonders “what would it be like to love him?” This love will take her to America, where the life she lived before resembles nothing like the one she and Mikhail are forced to make with their child. The piano is left behind in Russia, for a while, Mikhail promises, only until he can finagle a way to deliver his wife her beloved instrument which is no easy feat. The piano is the one thing that keeps Katya sane, that eases her suffering, the touching of keys an emotional release that’s become her lifeblood.

It’s 2012 and we meet Clara living in California , current owner of the Blüthner,  gifted to her by her father when she was only 12, the old thing  now collecting dust and unplayed in her guest bedroom until her relationship comes to an end and she must find another place to live. She is desperate to sell it, no room for the piano to go, it’s become baggage she’d be better off unloading, though it remains the only tie to her father, whose tragic death in a mysterious fire along with her cold, distant mother left her orphaned when she was young. What does she, a mechanic, need the Blüthner for anyway when she can’t  even play the thing, as her ex reminded her constantly. Where Katya found sanctuary with the piano, for Clara it was in her uncle’s garage, sent to live with he and her aunt after her parents deaths, burying her shocking grief by learning about the inner workings of automobiles, if only she better understood her own insides. Reluctant to commit to any boyfriend, she finds herself alone again, and worse she impulsively sold the Blüthner to a man named Greg Zeldin, whose already sent people from New York to pick it up. Striking a deal to rent it to him, she breaks her hand, making it impossible for her to work, at the worst time possible. Soon she finds herself journeying to Death Valley, where the photographer plans to complete a series of photos with the Blüthner as his main subject, her mechanic skills could be of use in the middle of nowhere, a handy excuse. Less than enthused about the plan, it may well be just what she needs to get her head on straight, pull her life into some semblance of order again.

Tormented by her childhood still at 26, the fights and silences between her parents,  her own mother’s mysterious bottomless dissatisfaction with their little family of three, Clara slowly opens up to Greg and discovers he too is haunted by his past. As his own story begins to take shape, it dawns on the reader why the Blüthner is vital to his work, cathartic even. As the two become closer they begin to find clarity and meaning in things that happened in their childhoods. Connections are made that can only be formed with an adult mind. What they learn of each other may be key to release them from the burden of their pain.

The story swims back and forth between Clara’s tale and Katya’s, from her time in Russia and the early days of her blossoming love and marriage to Mikhail, to the hardships of their lives as immigrants, it’s damning affects on their son. I enjoyed Katya’s story the most, I could have read a book about her and Mikhail and been just as sated. The ending was beautifully symbolic and I was surprised and proud of Clara’s choice. You don’t have to be interested in pianos to enjoy this novel, nor be a musician of any sort. It is a book about dreams that die beneath the brutal harshness of reality and destiny. One moment can change everything, even sour great love. It is a tale of family dysfunction, loss, grief, music, homeland and how our childhood can haunt us far into the future. Definitely a good read!

Publication Date: January 22, 2019

Knopf

Doubleday Publishing

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The Peacock Feast: A Novel by Lisa Gornick

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Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone.

Prudence O’Connor is three weeks past her one hundred and first birthday when she receives a call from a stranger named Grace, whose grandfather Randall O’Connor, she believes, is Prudence’s long absent brother. Prudence and Randall’s Irish immigrant parents worked as servants for Louis C. Tiffany, artist and designer best known for his stained “Tiffany” glass. When her brother flees after hitting their drunk father, promising to write, they receive one letter that he is living with Charlie, a boy who had ‘got himself out of this hell hole’ for San Francisco. Prudence spends her days visiting her father on the job, in awe of the beautiful work all about the home, drawing pictures of all that delights her. Her passion endears her to a Lady, Mrs. Dorothy Burlingham whose fond memories of Prudence’s father gives her pause, for the father she knows, mean when with drink, seems nothing like the man she describes, one who kindly listens to a sad girl ‘prattle on’ about her woes.

The title, The Peacock Feast is based on an event that Tiffany hosted for ‘men of genius’; painters, publishers, architects, transported by private train from New York to Oyster Bay ‘to view the spring flowers on his estate’. Serving Peacock and suckling pig, Tiffany’s daughters followed by his grandchildren were part of the procession dressed in Grecian gowns. The eccentricities of the rich don’t stop there, after all he once dynamited the breakwater to prevent public access to his beach. Prudence remembers, though two years old at the time, watching from behind a pillar seeing Dorothy as part of the procession, miserable, unhappy. Also of Laurelton Hall she recalls her memory of Dorothy’s wedding to Robert Burlingham, as she watched lifted in her father’s arms. How could she have guessed that she would one day become daughter-in-law to invited guests, far above her own parent’s social class. With no children of her own, discovering that she has a grand-niece reveals all the mystery behind everything that happened in her brother’s life decades past when he left home for good at the tender age of fourteen, never to be seen again.

The story encompasses a massive chunk of time, and though both siblings did well for themselves, tragedy followed them. Strange that now, at her lives end, all of Prudence’s questions will finally be answered. Grace is a twin, she informs Prudence, her brother Garcia and she were left on their grandfather’s doorstep, their drug addicted father, Leo unable to be still long enough to care for his own children. At fifteen Leo ‘turned wild’, the year was 1963. He met Jacie, and fell in love hard, it isn’t long before she is pregnant. Their mother suffering her own mental health issues, never shows up to take her children in hand. With the help of housekeeper Angela, Randall has no option but to raise Leo’s children. Grace and Garcia learn their grandfather’s story of survival, including enduring the great depression. Too, Grace comes to unravel what happened to drive her once promising, bright father to self-destruction. That love can be suffocating, that fear can make you cling so hard that it can kill it, may well be the force that came between Leo and Randall.

Grace works as a hospice nurse, seeing the most humbling and heartbreaking losses people suffer due to illness, disease and age. Here she finds Prudence on the edge of death too, and it seems death is a close relative in her own family. Prudence regrets so much about her own life, having ‘done little harm,’ she has to admit she’s ‘done little good’ either. Once accused of extortion after her mother received payments from her father’s fall and death, it is a lucky thing with the ‘milk train’ coming to a stop that she has worked hard on her own steam. Thanks to the scholarship she earned, and the recommendation of her teacher provided at the School of Fine and Applied Art, she finds herself with a job offer. She begins to work as an assistant to one Harriet Masters, working more as a ‘personal shopper’ for rich ladies than designing beautiful enchanting creations. It is through this less than fulfilling job she meets Carlton, who makes the connection between her and Dorothy Burlingham, who was so fond of the gardener’s daughter at her family home that she delivered a watercolor to her, Prudence. The ‘refined man’ falls in love with her, Carlton her first lover. When she falls pregnant, he makes a demand of her, that will remain one of her biggest acts of cowardice ever.

Grace and Prudence have in common their unending love for their siblings.

The novel goes into Freud, beginning with Dorothy’s connection to the family, psychiatric hospitals, prison, open land, exposes the vast divide between social classes, but it’s the explosion on that beach so long ago, that Prudence witnessed, felt rock her,  that echoes through time until secrets break free. Memory is a slippery eel, Prudence remembers more than most at her ripe old age, but there are shadows over one of the biggest incidents of her life, one she hasn’t been allowed to remember.

It is a heavy read, a story about how family embraces and breaks you. People that disappear sometimes have a stronger hold on you than what is present. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton

The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo

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If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.

Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too.  Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.

Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it?  Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.

Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal,  a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days  he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?

The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.

Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Flatiron Books

The End of Loneliness: A Novel by Benedict Wells

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My thoughts roam further back in time, until at last they settle on the calamity that overshadowed my childhood.

In one tragic instant, Jules, Marty and Liz Moreau’s parents die in a car crash while on a spur of the moment vacation. The sheltered life they knew living in their family home in Munich is over, “it seemed that there were families that were spared by Fate and others that attracted misfortune; and that night I wondered whether my family were one of these.” Jules, eleven years old, along with his older siblings is sent to live in a boarding school, a cheap state-run children’s home, not to be confused with those elite institutions the wealthy attend. “From time to time, particularly criminal specimens would wash up like flotsam at school”, here the children split, no longer bonded to each other as they once were. Jules is no longer confident enough to be the wildly brave joker he was at his old school. He sheds that skin and becomes isolated, insecure, a twister of words as they tangle on his tongue, poorly dressed, sinking into the role of orphan. The other boy he once was only a vague memory. He crosses paths with  another student, Alva. Whatever fate has swallowed his parents up, chewed his old secure life  has spit out Alva like an offering, his salvation for a time. What makes her decide to befriend him he learns later. His brother Marty seems the same as ever, buried in his intellect, seemingly unaffected by their parent’s deaths. Disinterested in maintaining family connection nor looking out for his brother and sister, set on the path for success he no longer seems to need anyone. Liz, beautiful as ever, like a queen surrounded by her ever-present admirers, always too much, living only in the present, hungry for experience until one day she abandons it all, vanishes without rhyme nor reason is just as distant as Marty. All of the siblings are far more affected by their loss than they know, but it will take years before they see it.

As the years pass, it is Alva Jules confides in, even as they love and date other people. Eventually, they turn to each other but there are secret places inside of her that she doesn’t share. Alva is full of old mysterious wounds and secrets. He hears about his sister only ‘through static’, as she can’t seem to anchor herself anywhere and when she does to land it never lasts. Marty, with a computer science degree is incredibly successful, even finds a girlfriend while scoffing at love but may not be as  adjusted as he projects to the world. Jules turns to photography, his father’s love, haunted by the manner in which he once rejected his father’s passions. Afterall, his mother was “the undisputed star of their family” , their father not as easy to warm to. Now, could he make a career from this art form?

As much as his parents and sister slipped through his fingers so did the parallel live he should have been living had his parents never died, too he loses Alva only to find her again years later living in Switzerland. Here, he begins to take writing seriously, having realized his talent for photography isn’t good enough. Alva has a life tangled in complications that he finds himself caught up in and if he has to have her this way, in the shadow of a  greatly talented man she admires, so be it. Their love story challenges Jules in ways he never could have imagined, pushing him to play with life or death. He finds himself in Lucerne, Switzerland finally willing to force himself to confront this thing between he and Alva, and to ‘stop chasing after a ghost.’

Just when everything Jules has wanted is aligned and it seems happiness is at last on the horizon, forces beyond his understanding have other plans. What will he do with his grief this time? A haunting story about family, grief, love and how certain pivotal events can change the trajectory of a life.

Publication Date: January 29, 2019

Penguin Books

Brides in the Sky: Stories and A Novella by Cary Holladay

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They couldn’t get the winter out of their lungs, was how Kate thought of her parents’ deaths.

The collection of stories begins with the tale of eighteen-year old Kate and her sister Olivia, twenty. Shocked by the grief of having lost their parents, now tied to land they must learn to farm on their own, either that are get hitched. With a mean harvest, they soon meet two young men, brothers Martin and Andrew heading out West for the promise of gold or better farming. Before long, change arrives as the sisters tie their fate to the men. A journey that will change everything between them, shape their futures. The perils they face on the Oregon trail will force both Kate and Olivia to find strength, when faced with darkness they never could have foreseen.

In the story Shades, Natalie takes a fancy to little Warren and takes him for a ride, ending up with her sorority sisters during rush week. “She was too beautiful and scandalous” and maybe a little criminal. Is she babysitting him? Comanche Queen begs the question, can you really ever go home? 1860, Cynthia Ann Parker is being rescued from her captive, once kidnapped by Comanche Indians when she was only nine-years old, now one of the Chief’s wives, mother to his infant child. After living and learning the ways of the Comanche, now her people too, what will happen when she returns to the world of the white man? Why is she enraged by her saviors? Women’s lives are shaped by luck, good and bad. There are choices that can ruin a life or save it, illnesses that can take children, violence, unwelcome touches and desirous ones. Through the pages of history a woman can disappear or live to ripe old age but never untouched by the times. There is the story with Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s sweetheart, and her admission of the “wonderful feeling of being chosen” and too she tells of the end that such excitement must come to. The tale end, her great grand-daughter crying, holding her hand and “she grabbed my hand and held on, like I could go back and change things.” Wow! Gut punch.

The best of the stories is A Thousand Stings and I was happy to end the collection immersed in the sister’s lives. Coming of age, chasing after the handsome Ray, the summer of love stirring things up when the preacher in their town begins growing his hair and nails long, strumming his guitar, sweet on a young thing while his wife and daughter are away on a trip. Scandalous! Times are changing as much as the sisters. Their mother’s moods, usually predictable sometimes seem worn out from mothering, tired for all that is to come with her three girls.  “It is a cumulative exhaustion she feels, a crushing sense of responsibility.” The story is focused more on Shirley than the other sisters, Patty and Diana but each of the sisters are fully developed characters, as is their mother. Shirley is the watcher, “on guard against harm” of the family. She is the eyes, she knows “when to just listen” too. You forget, as you age, what it’s like a to be so young, dealing with your ever-changing body and only half understanding the adult world, or your own siblings. With Patty, the need to fit in with the girls her own age, to have the perfect party, all that longing for things go right, and how we fear being embarrassed by making the wrong move or our mothers. There is a lot of story in their everyday actions, if you pay attention. The ending is adorable, the rain, the shampoo! It’s the letting go, a release, a ‘forgetting your troubles’ and stealing happiness, a sisterhood of freedom. I would have loved a full novel about these girls and their mother alone! I stayed up just to finish their story. This is an author I will be watching!

Publication Date: January 14, 2019

Ohio University Press

Swallow Press

 

 

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect: A Novel by Dave Patterson

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I’ve often prayed for our misery to be transferred to someone else- anyone else.

A young man comes of age  in rural Vermont alongside his older brother, just a sliver away from the trailer park and poverty they used to live among before moving into a house. The two contend with more than their hormones. Their Catholicism is little help in facing the harsh reality of a mother whose illness turns out to be cancer. The shame and confusion of raging urges that are becoming more of a fetish has him believing he is a deviant whose desires cannot be controlled. Often hungry for a filling meal himself, sick of heating frozen meals, he begins resenting his mother’s charitable meals for those that have even less, considering the recipient’s son is anything but thankful and seems enraged by generousity. His own mother tends to others needs despite her fragile health, yet contrary to her faith goes against the church during a protest, proving sometimes you have to honor your own moral code.  There is the debt he owes for a cat, a ‘fruitful’ endeavour that sees felines taking over their home but far more confusing is his father’s concerns over the tanks he helps build for the war. There is an inner conflict, risk losing the job that provides for his family, particularly now with his wife so ill or just do one’s job and remember ‘it’s best not to question things’. Their father isn’t the only one struggling with his place in life. How do you put your faith in God when even Father Brian isn’t holding strong?

As the boys help their father build a table for their ailing mother, the only thing she truly demands, her health continues to decline. Then new girl Taylor comes along, confusing him with her desire to know what his life feels like, that even as empty and terrible as it sometimes proves to be, it is still full of the love and stability others with so much less may long for. He finds himself drawn to her, whether it makes sense or not. Taylor’s environment is wildly freer than his own, surrounded by kids in the trailer park who have nothing better to do to pass the time than drink or worse. With a mother who goes through boyfriends, she needs protection and maybe he can be the one, even if he is wise enough to know running away isn’t an option, not when they don’t have two dimes to rub together between them. The only certain truth about Taylor is he understands even less about her actions than he does about his own.

It’s a story about being trapped in situations outside one’s control, that even faith sometimes has to take a backseat to the harsh realities and obstacles that come into our lives. Not all moral dilemmas can be resolved with a prayer anymore than laying on of hands is going to cure his mother’s illness. Paths can converge and lead to happy awakenings, as much as it can lead to tragedy. Before the end of the novel, our young narrator will grow up and discover that when misery and suffering eases its hold on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of it.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press