There is a piano in my living room. It is nearly a century old, carved from rosewood, inlaid with ivory. It contains hammers, keys, and part of my soul.
It began its life in Germany, and found its way to my grandmother’s living room in South Africa. Years later, my mom taught piano lessons on it while I was learning to walk. It is the piano I practiced scales on, soothed myself at, found a voice on. I cried teenage tears of heartbreak over those keys. On it, I have poured out my heart to my Mom, listening with eyes closed to the story I couldn’t find with words but somehow could in notes. And, decades later, it has sighed into a spot in my living room on the other side of the world.
Growing up, the salient facts were about me were my name, my age, and that I played piano. The rosewood beauty in my living room is more than a musical instrument: it is a storehouse of memories. It does the work of a family photo album: tracing my fingers along its edges reminds me of people and places I might otherwise have forgotten.
I don’t know what it would have been like to read Margaret Philbrick’s novel A Minor (which released yesterday) as a non-pianist. But as someone whose memories are intricately connected to the music of my childhood, and who played for enough years to appreciate that Chopin really is an order of magnitude more difficult to play than Bach, I read this novel through different eyes.
The book centers on the story of Clive Serkin, a teenage prodigy who comes under the tutelage of Clare Cardiff, a world-renowned concert pianist with a failing marriage and early-onset dementia. It touches on issues of faith (Clive is Jewish, Clare agnostic, and the novel features Clare’s well-meaning but somewhat sanctimonious Christian sister) as well as family (Clare’s crumbling relationship with her husband, Clive’s respectful relationship with his parents and impressively amiable relationship with his sister). But more than that – A Minor is (as the subtitle says) a story of music and memory.
Here’s where the remarkable part of this book comes in: Philbrick brings music to life in words in a way I had not ever read before. Despite a dozen years of piano instruction under my belt, I was NEVER talented enough to plumb the depths of emotion and artistic expression which Philbrick describes as young Clive prepares piece by piece for his big competition.
As it turns out, I didn’t need the musical background to appreciate the intricacies of musical expression… because the best part of this book? IT HAS A SOUNDTRACK! Over and above the beautiful descriptions in prose, the audio book comes with a soundtrack so that the reader can hear each piece that is being described in the background – a transcendent way to read, if you ask me.
I read the book in paperback and listened to the tracks from the publisher’s website (which took all of 10 seconds to set up) – and with the novel’s commentary before me, I heard things in those pieces I had never heard before. I breathed slower. I got goosebumps. I remembered.
A Minor is a gentle, redemptive, lyrical story…. with a breathtaking soundtrack. I wrote a bit more about it in a review for Amazon here…. but for today just wanted to let you know that the lovely Margaret who wrote probably the most popular “Words that changed my world” post to date, has also written a beautiful book. It’s available in all places where books are sold, as well as on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.