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 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

The Winter Sister:A Novel by Megan Collins

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Strange, now, to think of it, now that I was so far from that world, sucked back into the one I’d thought I’d peeled off of me like a sunburn.

Winter Sister, at its heart, is about more than the death of Persephone, Sylvie’s older sister. It’s about their mother’s ‘history of silence’ and strange ‘dark days’. Sylvie, before the tragedy of Persephone’s murder destroyed her mother, lived in the spotlight of her mother’s love, a tenderness that never seemed to shine over Persephone. Sylvie is the favored one, because she reminds their mother of the man who got away, according to her mom. With their independent mom, who could “love us more than a hundred fathers ever could” there was never any reason to know who those flings were. Perseophone never quite feels that all encompassing adoration and attention, and could have used a father’s love.

Sylvie thinks she harbors all the secrets that matter, that her shameful act the last night she saw her sister alive makes her as guilty of her murder as the actual killer. Persephone was forbidden to date, her mother knew nothing about Ben and their volatile relationship, nor the hidden fingertip sized bruises he left on her beautiful skin. Sylvie knows he killed her sister with his dangerous, brutal love but no one would ever accuse the mayor’s son of such an act, despite the reports that she mattered as “one of Spring Hill’s own”, Sylvia knows her sister is nothing to the town. In truth, they were never truly a part of Spring Hill. It takes the loss of her mother, when she most needs her to be present and the passage of time to see clearly what she missed sixteen years ago.

Present day and Sylvie works in a tattoo parlor, no longer known as ‘Persephone’s Sister’, having long ago shed that skin and reinvented a past for herself that doesn’t carry the tragic air of loss. In her new life, her sister hasn’t been murdered. On the night of her thirtieth birthday, the call comes about her mother’s cancer. Aunt Jill had stepped up and cared for her when her mother retreated to her room and from life in the aftermath of Persephone’s murder. Now, Aunt Jill is needed desperately by her own child, stretched too thin it’s time Sylvie do her duty and return home to help her mother through treatment. Never once had her mother checked in on her, not once did she give her the comfort she desperately needed after losing her beloved sister and now, she’s meant to play devoted, caring daughter to a mother she hasn’t spoken to in years, still just as bitter and mean as ever. To make matters worse, Ben works as a nurse at the cancer center, Ben who Sylvie is adamant got away with killing her sister.

In confronting the past, she must also question her mother’s coldness towards her sister all those years before she was killed. Could she have been the one abusing her? Why did it seem like they both shared a different mother? Has what she believed about Ben been wrong all this time? If not Ben, then who had reason to hurt Persephone? It is about being too young to understand the dynamics of relationships, being between childhood and adult things. It is a bond between sisters and how their mother’s attention or lack there of spills over into their interactions with each other, fueling resentment at times, and yet Persephone and Sylvie always chose each other, until one night Sylvie thinks she knows a way to save her sister from all consuming dangerous love. A decision she will regret all her life, a boulder of grief she carries in her gut.

Why didn’t her mother ever care enough to share in their grief together? Why is Ben telling a story that puts Persephone in a wildly different light? Maybe she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought, or built her own version of their love based on the evidence she saw. Could she really have been wrong all this time? Her mother is sober now, and it’s frightening, her vulnerability. “How much of Persephone’s relationship with Mom had I missed? How many small but accumulating hurts and dismissals had I filtered out over the years, swathed, as I’d been, in Mom’s arms?” Anaïs Nin once wrote, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” and that could be the title of this book. The truths Sylvie has held in her mind begin to disintegrate upon her return home, with the clarity of adult eyes. She is stunted, she hasn’t been living her life fully since that night. I found what moved me more than the ‘who done it’ is the dysfunction in her family, that each person’s history in the same home can be outrageously different, and the truth lies somewhere in between. Youth is often a cloud that plays with memory. Fear, too, can color how we behave, or raise our children but when a child needs their mother, there is never an explanation good enough to exonerate her actions. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Touchstone

Atria Books

Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

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

Late Air: A Novel by Jaclyn Gilbert

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Murray’s fist tightened over his watch, numbers slipping like sand.

What began as a romantic, surprising love in Paris when Murray (a marathon runner, olympic competitor, coach for Yale) and Nancy ( literary archivist) first meet in a cafe, turns into marriage. Her family isn’t thrilled about his background. Just finishing her PhD, her mother wanted far more for her than someone with Murray’s less than stellar background. Not even after marriage and a child are her parents able to open their hearts. Murray himself doesn’t have many familial connections with both parent’s deceased and a brother who dropped off West when their mother was ill. Together, they create a family of their own to build upon, chosing to focus on their careers and marriage.

Murray is more than passionate about his girls, in Nancy’s mind maybe obsessed. Having moved to New Haven more for his work than hers, there are small resentments. Never easy in making friends, she finds her own footing and befriends colleagues to share the thoughts in her mind with as Murray becomes more distant, and their intimacy recedes. Often ashamed of the jealousy she feels over Murray’s ‘girls’, Nancy tries to channel all her energy into her newborn, Jean. But the days collect in loneliness, the maternal feelings don’t come naturally and Murray is always preoccupied by his stopwatch, training. She needs her work too, this she knows. Being stuck home all day isn’t nourishment to her mind, soul. She isn’t bonding naturally, her child is often a squalling bundle of energy. She is exhausted, depressed, and lonely.  In time, her little family is working again and everything feels good, though Murray is forgetful of important things, his mind never committed to Jean and Nancy.

Present day, sixteen years later Nancy and Murray are nowhere they thought they’d be. Tragedy has struck one of Murray’s star athletes, and the suffocating horrors of his own past suffering merges with present day. Now, he is beginning to see all the things he missed but is it too late, this breath of air? Could all the ridiculous fears, accusations and guilt from the past have some grain of truth? Is the injury Becky sustained his fault? Did he push his girls too hard? Was he a little too involved with others? Did he spend too much time running away from Nancy and Jean? Could anything he did or didn’t do change either outcome?

Time has its way with all the characters in this novel. Marriage through tragedy is a different beast, and sometimes it takes the passage of years to understand our choices, our mistakes, to confront our pain. Sometimes we understand too late that our partner’s betrayal may well be rooted in our own. This novel is an exploration of pain and love. You don’t have to be interested in runners (sports) to take meaning from the story, it’s much more about relationships, marriage, family. It burns slowly, takes you back and forth through Nancy and Murray’s lives, but those of you married long enough can relate especially partners who have trudged through loss together. If you haven’t known tragedy, you will one day. Grief and sorrow comes around for us all. It is the price we pay for being alive, for love.

Publication Date: November 13, 2019

Little A