THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO
By Chris Cander
Alfred A, Knopf, $26.95, 336 pages
The piano in Chris Cander’s novel is made from spruce, selected from a snowy Romanian forest by Joseph Bluthner, who only ever chose the very best trees: Old ones with at least seven annular rings per centimeter. From these he made the pianos that bear his name. Famed for their warmth of tone they “were beloved of the likes of Schumann and Liszt.”
And also of Katya. As a little girl in post-World War II Russia she inherited her Bluthner from a gruff neighbor who immediately spotted the “music beating in her heart.” After studying at the conservatory in Leningrad, Katya has a brilliant career ahead of her. But.
She falls for young engineer Mikhail. Married with a baby, their lives are fraught because his Jewishness limits his job opportunities. If they emigrate to America, all will be well he thinks. Katya can’t bear the thought. She doesn’t want to leave Russia and most definitely not the piano, but there is no way it can go with them.
In America they are miserable. Mikhail finds English hard, so his work opportunities are no better than in Russia, and he becomes a vodka-swilling brute. And while Katya raises her son Grisha in an apartment nicer than any in Russia, she is utterly miserable until 13 years later the piano is miraculously returned to her.
Eventually it belongs to Clara, who gets it as a birthday present from her father just before their house burns down, killing her parents and incinerating everything the family owned. The piano escapes because her mother had insisted it be moved from the house. Clara was on a sleepover, so she escaped too.
By the time she is 28, Clara has nothing except the piano and a modest income from her job at an automotive repair shop. She loves the piano — the only relic of her family — but it’s a bear to move and expensive to keep in tune. And for what? Clara has no talent for playing it.
Though she loves it, on a rational whim she decides to sell it, only to have instant second thoughts when a buyer immediately presents himself. He’s a photographer and wants to take pictures of the piano set amidst the landscapes of Death Valley. They compromise on a rental agreement that lets him take it for a couple of weeks. But when he turns up with two movers who cart it off, she freaks out and follows them, setting off a cascade of events and revelations.
The melancholy stories of Clara and Katya intertwine as Chris Conder moves from Clara’s journey to Death Valley to the back story of Katya and her love for the piano. Both women are undermined by the emotional neediness that comes from the lack of immediate family, and both have hitched the piano onto their lives but in different ways.
Katya is seriously talented and well trained. Intellectually and emotionally wedded to music, she’s a composer as well as a pianist. When she loses the piano a second time, she has nothing to live for. Clara has less self-knowledge. As a car mechanic she can do a tough-cookie act, but she is less assured than she appears, and certainly less so than Katya. Indeed, they have little in common except ownership of the charismatic piano, so it exerts a different influence in their lives.
As the most important character in this novel, the piano prompts most of the action. Its effects are dramatic and generally far from benign so though it is the instrument of great art and the object of great love, it looms rather scarily. Everybody “remarked on it: how old, how solid, how moody. Whenever anybody played it, even an upbeat piece, it sounded melancholy.” The reader never forgets the piano, and has no trouble imagining its melancholy sound.
Among the human characters, Katya is a heart-wrenching portrait of a woman who knows exactly what she wants, has it almost in her grasp, but never actually gets it. Mikhail is another portrait of disappointment. And in a different key, Greg the photographer is also warped by the experience of loss. In contrast, Clara is less complex and less interesting because the piano, which dominates the novel and is so central to the lives of Katya and others, is really no more than a memento to her.
Readers stay gripped by the questions this novel raises: Questions about art, about the power of fetishized possessions, about the effects of family members on each other, about the difficulties of finding love and of recognizing it. The settings are gripping too. It moves from Brezhnev’s Russia to late-20th century California, cold Romanian forests to torrid Death Valley. It’s well worth reading and pondering.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.