“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