The name of the instrument that we know as the piano is a shortening of the longer term pianoforte, which derives from the Italian for “soft and loud.” In her third novel, “The Weight of a Piano,” Chris Cander proves herself a masterful, almost musical handler of volume and emphasis in words, knowing when to write a scene in a voice big and booming, and when to allow her approach to grow quieter.
As the title suggests, the tale is largely about the literal and metaphoric weight that certain objects can possess. Fittingly, the book opens with a description of the construction of a Blüthner piano, “exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt.” This explanation is so richly detailed, you could practically build one yourself after reading the first chapter.
Cander follows the piano and its shifting ownership to tell the interwoven stories of two very different women. In Southern California in 2012, we meet Clara Lundy, a 26-year-old auto mechanic. As a child, she was given a Blüthner upright by her UCLA professor father shortly before he and her mother died in a house fire. She finds herself kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment over her indecision regarding marriage and forced to figure out what to do with the unwieldy instrument, which she has never learned to play.
In the U.S.S.R. in 1962, we meet Ekaterina Dmitrievna, aka Katya, who is bequeathed a beautiful Blüthner by a mysterious and suicidal old German neighbor who, as her father explains, “said even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.”
Ultimately, her husband decides that they and their infant son must flee their oppressive and anti-Semitic country for the United States; tragically, they lose her beloved piano in the chaos. Of course, both women’s Blüthner is one and the same, and Cander builds her crisscrossed plot around the connections that the heirloom brings into their lives.
After her hand gets broken while moving the piano, Clara places an online ad to sell it. As fate would have it, the buyer turns out to be Greg, a mysterious Russian-American photographer working on a project that will use the piano “as the symbol of what it feels like to inhabit the world when the music stops.” His plan and Clara’s persistence takes them on a road trip through Death Valley National Park, by the end of which long-held secrets get revealed and their lives are forever altered.
The reader is left to contemplate loss and legacy, the novel’s notions of “poetry and color and imagination” lingering like the notes of a distant song.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, “and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”
The Weight of a Piano
By: Chris Cander.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $26.95.
Event: In conversation with Peter Geye, 7 p.m. Feb. 19, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; Literature Lovers' Night Out, 7 p.m. Feb. 20, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior. Tickets $20, 952-401-0932; 7 p.m. Feb. 21, Community Thread, Stillwater. Tickets $11, 651-430-3385.