The Weight of a Piano: A novel
“Despite the richness of Cander’s prose, in The Weight of a Piano she crafts a novel that staggers somewhat under its own weight and the weight it carries of its alienated and often alienating protagonists, Katya and Clara.”
Chris Cander is a talented author of three works of fiction. Despite the richness of Cander’s prose, in The Weight of a Piano she crafts a novel that staggers somewhat under its own weight and the weight it carries of its alienated and often alienating protagonists, Katya and Clara.
Katya, a young wife and mother of baby Grisha, is a talented pianist. She and her husband, Misha, are Jewish refusniks in Russia in 1962. Clara, a 26-year-old orphan, a first-rate car mechanic, lives in Bakersfield, in Southern California in 2012. The lives of these women are entangled by a third protagonist: a piano, no ordinary piano but a 1905 Blüthner made in Germany.
Katya and Clara, generations apart, lead the lives of outsiders. Their narratives unfold in alternating chapters.
Katya’s husband (a heavy drinker) wants them to leave Krushchev’s Russia and live in the United States. Katya is reluctant, she has a withdrawn, almost reclusive personality, and aside from her deep love of her son and her motherland, she cannot imagine living in another country.
Katya only comes alive when she plays her piano. She inherited a 1905 Blüthner, a wonderfully resonant instrument, from an older man who lived alone in their apartment building when she was a child. The music Katya hears while sitting at his feet, as he plays, and later, her own inspired playing transport her to another realm where her inner life comes alive. Otherwise life is a desperate struggle against poverty.
Eventually, the small family does leave Russia and settles in California. The greatest trauma for Katya, aside from the loss of her motherland, is having to trust her unreliable husband when he promises her that he will find a way to have her piano shipped to the USA.
They settle in Los Angeles. Katya and her husband drift further apart. He finds difficulty in learning English and relinquishes his dream of using his civil engineering training to build roads while settling for driving a taxi. The family makes one fateful, short, vacation trip together, to Death Valley. The stark landscape reminds Katya of her beloved Russian tundra while the family records this visit with Polaroid photos. Katya becomes obsessed with the photos, and spends lonely, melancholic hours at home poring over them.
Some years later her piano is miraculously delivered to their house. Katya’s outlook on life comes semi-alive as she reconnects with the familiar keyboard and hears the transcendent music that rolls from her fingers. She gives piano lessons. Grisha, devoted to his mother, loves to hear her playing, and instantly recognizes her moods from her playing.
“In the six weeks since the piano had been returned to her, she’d played whenever she could. Everything else could wait. And the music! Once again she was floating above the dull world. Her fingers felt free, her mind as well. Her Blüthner was a connection to Russia—to home—that even the music couldn’t match. Tangled up in the golden notes, she could forget her own profound loneliness.”
Clara, the other protagonist, is orphaned after her parents die in a house fire when she is 12. That night she was at a sleepover with a friend. Clara is taken in by her childless uncle and aunt and develops a close relationship with her uncle, a car mechanic. He teaches her the trade, and she eschews the college experience to become a mechanic.
Clara has a tough exterior but internally she is emotionally fragile with deeply felt abandonment issues. She is so shattered by the loss of her parents (especially her father) that she cannot commit to any relationship, except to one, her gift from her father a 560-pound, gleaming black, upright Blüthner. The night of the fire the Blüthner was at a technician’s shop for tuning and refinishing. The piano carries her only connection to her lost family life, and she drags it along with her whenever she moves apartments; during her latest move the piano shifts in the stairwell, pinning her and breaking her hand.
Clara has tried over years to play the piano but accepted she has no musical talent. Her devotion to her piano evokes that of a similar attachment of the protagonist, Ada, to her piano, in the marvelous novel and movie (both written by Jane Campion), The Piano, where Ada is so memorably acted by Holly Hunter.
“She had kept the Blüthner as a talisman, the only souvenir that had survived her childhood, the last gift her father had given her. Yet it hadn’t been a gift at all. The people who made it. She had pictured them as ghostly revenants, with their individual claims, trapped inside the ebony case. She, too had been a ghost of sorts.”
After the accident to her hand, Clara tries to sell her piano but finds she cannot let go of the past it embodies for her. She agrees to rent the piano to a New York City photographer for a week, a prop he needs for a photo shoot; you guessed it, in Death Valley. Not working herself because of her injured hand, suspicious and concerned, Clara follows behind her piano now in a van and shadows the photographer.
Events unfold rapidly, and the back story that led to this encounter in the Death Valley Nature Park, alternates between the obvious and surprises. (No spoilers here for readers who love surprises.)
In The Weight of a Piano, the metaphorical weight the Blüthner carries is not only the weight of the protagonists’ past losses but of the novel itself. The book can become sluggish and stodgy in long sections. Without the piano, the novel is lightweight with standard fare characterizations.
The inner lives of both Katya and Clara are generically portrayed. The men in the book are all stereotypical cardboard cutouts, except perhaps for Grisha who is unsympathetic and unnecessarily creepy. Author Cander is at her best in detailed descriptions of the piano and piano making, music in general, and the stark desolate beauty of the Death Valley landscape.