Though they will never meet, Clara and Katya’s lives are irrevocably linked by their connections to the instrument. The late-in-the-novel revelation of how Katya’s piano travels from Khrushchev’s Russia to sunny California is ably and convincingly told.
Katya and Clara’s stories unfold in alternating chapters. In 2012, Clara is an emotionally bereft and desperately lonely 26-year-old. Her father gave her the piano as a gift for her 12th birthday, shortly before her parents died in a fire. She was then sent to live with an aunt and uncle who also died young, and, as her story kicks off, her boyfriend breaks up with her. Her only reliable companion is the piano, which she can’t play. Although it’s a reminder of everything she’s lost, she can’t let it go. “The Blüthner,” Cander writes, “became little more than a piano-shaped paperweight, keeping what was left of her childhood memories from floating away.”
To Katya, however, the piano sparks joy, and playing it gives her a reason to live. She loses the piano when she flees communist Russia for the United States. There, she lives a lonely existence with an abusive husband and the shadow of what should have been: a life as a concert pianist alongside a man she cannot have.
As interesting as these women’s stories are, Clara’s stagnates at times, especially during the hundred or more pages during which an unlikable photographer drags her and her Blüthner to Death Valley to photograph it against the region’s stark and disquieting backdrops. The details involved with hauling, loading and unloading it from the truck, adjusting tire inflation and continually lifting the piano onto a dolly is as exhausting for the characters as it is tedious for the reader. Candor’s intentions are clear. She wants to show how Clara is emotionally shackled to the piano and how she tries to break free. It just takes so long to get there.
But Cander, who has written two other, well-received novels, has a gift for offering readers access to unique experiences. As the novel opens, Julius Blüthner is walking through a forest in the Romanian mountains searching for the perfect spruce to build one of his “exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt.” Cander’s poetic description of Blüthner knocking on the trees with his walking stick and pressing his ear against them — “as his intuition dictated, listening for the music hidden inside” — reminds us how little we wonder about the provenance of the handmade and manufactured goods we consume and discard.
She conveys her characters’ emotions in equally lyrical ways. “What if – just as a photo album grew thick with memories of holidays, vacations, family, and friends – the piano gained the weight of each owner and his or her music?” one of them wonders. That weight will overwhelm Katya and Clara, forcing both to free themselves from it in dramatically different ways. Their journeys to enlightenment, as well as the Blüthner’s transcontinental travels, make this a worthy novel despite the story’s occasional sluggishness.
Carol Memmott’s reviews have also appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Tribune.
Chris Cander will be at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave NW) Sunday, Feb. 3 at 1 p.m.
The Weight of a Piano
By Chris Cander
Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95.