Cover image for The weight of a piano
Title:
The weight of a piano
ISBN:
9780525654674
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.
Physical Description:
323 pages ; 22 cm
Summary:
In 1962, in the Soviet Union, eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed what will become the love of her life: a Blüthner piano, built at the turn of the century in Germany, on which she discovers everything that she herself can do with music and what music, in turn, does for her. Yet after marrying, she emigrates with her young family from Russia to America, at her husband's frantic insistence, and her piano is lost in the shuffle. In 2012, in Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year-old Clara Lundy loses another boyfriend and again has to find a new apartment, which is complicated by the gift her father had given her for her twelfth birthday, shortly before he and her mother died in a fire that burned their house down: a Blüthner upright she has never learned to play. Ophaned, she was raised by her aunt and uncle, who in his car-repair shop trained her to become a first-rate mechanic, much to the surprise of her subsequent customers. But this work, her true mainstay in a scattered life, is put on hold when her hand gets broken while the piano's being moved--and in sudden frustration she chooses to sell it. And what becomes crucial is who the most interested party turns out to be...
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Summary

Summary

In 1962, in the Soviet Union, eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed what will become the love of her life- a Bl thner piano, built at the turn of the century in Germany, on which she discovers everything that she herself can do with music and what music, in turn, does for her. Yet after marrying, she emigrates with her young family from Russia to America, at her husband's frantic insistence, and her piano is lost in the shuffle.
In 2012, in Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year-old Clara Lundy loses another boyfriend and again has to find a new apartment, which is complicated by the gift her father had given her for her twelfth birthday, shortly before he and her mother died in a fire that burned their house down- a Bl thner upright she has never learned to play. Orphaned, she was raised by her aunt and uncle, who in his car-repair shop trained her to become a first-rate mechanic, much to the surprise of her subsequent customers. But this work, her true mainstay in a scattered life, is put on hold when her hand gets broken while the piano's being moved--and in sudden frustration she chooses to sell it. And what becomes crucial is who the most interested party turns out to be. . .


Author Notes

CHRIS CANDER graduated from the Honors College at the University of Houston, in the city where she was raised and still lives, with her husband, daughter, and son. For seven years she has been a writer-in-residence for Writers in the Schools there. She serves on the Inprint advisory board and stewards several Little Free Libraries in her community. Her first novel, 11 Stories , won the Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Popular Fiction, and her most recent, Whisper Hollow , was long-listed for the Great Santini Fiction Prize by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. She is also the author of The Word Burglar , which won the 2014 Moonbeam Children's Book Award (silver).


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In her elegiac and evocative novel, Cander (Whisper Hollow) explores the legacy of loss, the intersections of art and music, and what happens when physical objects assume outsized symbolism. As a young girl in the Soviet Union in 1962, Katya admires her neighbor's BlA¼thner piano; when he leaves it to her after his death, Katya pursues her musical passions and becomes obsessed with maintaining possession of the piano, even when given the opportunity to flee as a dissident. In California in 2012, Clara is a 26-year-old auto mechanic. Her boyfriend has just ended their relationship and demanded that she move out-along with the BlA¼thner that is her only remaining link to her dead parents. When a piano-moving accident leaves Clara with a broken hand and unable to work, she impulsively puts the piano for sale on Craigslist-and the response she receives sends her deep into the barren beauty of Death Valley and into a new relationship that may shed light on her family history, and on the cursed history of that piano. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes, Cander's novel delves into the often unexplainable genesis of artistic inspiration and examines how family legacy-the physical objects people inherit, the genetic traits people carry on, and the generational lore people internalize-can both ignite imagination and limit its scope. Cander brilliantly and convincingly expresses music and visual art in her writing, capturing both within a near-alien but surprisingly stunning landscape. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

In Soviet Russia, Katya inherits an old upright Blüthner piano from a neighbor. She goes to Leningrad to study music, where she meets and marries engineering student Mikhail, and the two eventually settle in California with their young son. There, Katya's beloved piano becomes her refuge as Mikhail turns into a violent drunk. A piano is more of a burden to Clara Lundy, who received a Blüthner from her father on her twelfth birthday. Her parents died in a house fire soon after, and, though she can't play it, she clings to the piano over the years. After she impulsively relinquishes the Blüthner to photographer Greg, seller's remorse compels her to follow him to Death Valley, where he is using the piano for a photo series. Their time in the desert leads to revelations about the surprising ways the piano links them together. Strong characterization and attention to detail, whether in the manufacture of a piano or in the desolate beauty of Death Valley, elevate Cander's (Whisper Hollow, 2015) tale about learning to let go of the past.--Mary Ellen Quinn Copyright 2018 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

IMAGINE IF IRVING Berlin had read Chris Cander's novel. He'd sit down to write a song. He'd get as far as "I hate a piano." Then the man who gave the world lines like "a fine way to treat a Steinway " would mutter: "Bliithner. Dark. Troubled. And doesn't rhyme with anything." An old German Bliithner, in this instance an upright, binds the plot of "The Weight of a Piano." It's an improbable survivor, like the Bliithner brand itself, which has outlasted the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Cold War. Brahms, Debussy and Bartok had Bliithners, as did Liberace, and recordings will keep some Bliithners alive forever. Paul McCartney played one on the Beatles album "Let It Be." But considering what happens in "The Weight of a Piano," another Bliithner seems worth mentioning. The one built for the Hindenburg escaped destruction over New Jersey, having been taken off the airship before the fatal flight in 1937. Stashed at the Bliithner factory in Leipzig, it was destroyed by Allied bombs six years later. "The Weight of a Piano" is about memory and identity. A young Californian named Clara wonders if "every single thing" ever played on her Bliithner had "left an afterimage, a shadow of emotion deposited somewhere inside the case." It had done a lot of traveling and must have been a fixture in a lot of lives before Cander picks up the story, when it's middle-aged. Cander writes that the Bliithner in "The Weight of a Piano" always "sounded melancholy," even when the music was supposed to be upbeat. Mostly what we hear is by Alexander Scriabin. He dreamed big dreams, bigger than etudes or sonatas. His sprawling work "Mysterium," the New York Times critic Donai Henahan once wrote, "apparently would have pitched all the senses into one big Cuisinart and set the control on pulse." "The Weight of a Piano" throws a lot into the Cuisinart - it's immense, intense and imaginative. Clara's Bliithner once belonged to a Russian named Katya. It was bequeathed to her by a notorious neighbor in the Khrushchev-era apartment building where she grew up. She turns out to be talented. After the Leningrad Conservatory, she marries Mikhail, an engineering student who insists on emigrating with their son, Grisha. Also in the mix are Bruce, a U.C.L.A. professor who is one of Katya's few adult pupils when she's giving piano lessons in California (they go from the Bliithner to bed); Bruce's wife, Alice, who draws the line at living under the same roof as the Bliithner (Mikhail having flown into a vodka-stoked rage and Katya having asked Bruce to take the Bliithner for safekeeping); and one of Alice's Virginia Slims, which starts a deadly fire. Katya, who assumes the piano has been destroyed, thinks she can't live without Bruce or the Bliithner. But the Bliithner is fine because Bruce had sent it out for a tuning and some touch-up work. Clara, who is Bruce's daughter, is fine, too, because she was away at a sleepover that night. She grows up with relatives in Bakersfield, Calif., and becomes an auto mechanic just like Uncle Jack. The Bliithner is her one inherited possession, even if she's no pianist. And of all the Bliithners in all the online ads in all the world, it's the one that Grisha - who now goes by Greg - spots as soon as Clara, now in her mid-20s, decides to list it. There's a lot to process here, but Cander is a smart, deft storyteller who holds her Scriabin-worthy tale together. She understands how something as beloved as a piano can actually be a burden. She also understands the inner workings of a Bliithner, just as she seems to understand carburetors and brakes. I'd probably let her work on my piano - or my car. JAMES BARRON, a metro reporter for The Times, is the author of "Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand."


Library Journal Review

In 1962 Russia, eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed a German Blüthner piano and lives to play, compose, and eventually teach music. In 2012, 26-year-old Clara Lundy, a gifted car mechanic living in Bakersfield, CA, is thrown out of her apartment by her latest boyfriend. In the process of moving into a new place, her treasured Blüthner piano slips, breaking her hand and putting her working days on hold. The piano is the only remaining possession that ties her to her parents, who were killed in a house fire when she was 12, but she needs money to pay the rent and places an ad for the piano. After agreeing to sell to a photographer with passionate ties to the piano, Clara immediately regrets it, and neither woman will cede her claim. The two negotiate a rental agreement that leads them both on a remarkable road trip of discovery and healing from shared tragic pasts that won't let go. VERDICT From award-winning author Cander (Whisper Hollow), this beautiful tale of the intersecting stories of Katya and Clara, two strong women working hard to rebuild their shattered lives, is impossible to put down and impossible to forget.-Beth Andersen, formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where the winters were especially cold and long, were spruce trees that would be made into pianos: exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt. One man alone knew how to choose them. Once the leaves had fallen and snow blanketed the ground, Julius Blüthner made the trip from Leipzig by train and walked through the forest alone. Because of the elevation and the brutal cold, trees there grew very slowly. They stood straight and thick against the elements, their grain dense with rosin. Blüthner nodded to the young trees as he passed, occasion­ally brushing their bark in greeting. He sought the older ones, whose branches he couldn't reach, whose diameters were so great he couldn't see if a bear were standing behind the trunk. He knocked them with his walking stick, and pressed his ear against them as his intuition dictated, listening for the music hidden inside. He heard it more clearly than any other piano maker, better even than Ignaz Bösendorfer and Carl Bechstein and Henry Steinway. When he found what he was listening for, he marked the tree with a scrap of red wool, which stood out bright against the snow. Then the lumberjacks he'd hired cut down the trees he'd chosen. Watching closely, Blüthner could tell which were the finest specimens by how they fell. Only those with a mini­mum of seven annular rings per centimeter, all evenly spaced, would be carried out of the forest on sleds, then shipped back to Germany. And the finest among these would become the soundboards that beat like hearts inside his famous pianos. As protection against splitting, the logs were kept wet until they reached the sawmill. There they were quarter-sawn to unlock the purest tones, then sawn and planed into uniform planks. The wood chips went into the furnaces to heat the mill and power the steam engines. Because of knots and other imperfections revealed in the cutting, many of the precious tonewood planks also ended up in the furnaces. What was kept was nearly perfect: white in color; light and flexible; the faint traces of the rings densely spaced and running parallel across the faces of the soundboard planks. These raw boards were stored for at least two years, covered and uncovered until their humidity dwindled to about fourteen percent. When it was ready, the wood was transported by horse cart to the enormous Blüthner factory in the western quarter of Leipzig and laid out on racks near the ceiling in hot rooms for many months. But even then it wasn't ready to become an instrument. To ensure that the soundboard would someday conduct Blüthner's peerless golden tone, the wood had to dry out for another few years in the open air. It was with reverence, then, in 1905, that an assistant Kla­vierbaumeister selected a number of those carefully seasoned planks and glued them edge to edge to form a single board. He cut it to the proper shape and planed it to the proper thick­ness, flexible enough to vibrate but strong enough to push back against the pressure of more than two hundred strings. Once crafted, it was returned to those warmer rooms to dry further before thin ribs could be applied to its underside, per­pendicular to the grain lines. Then the soundboard took on a small amount of moisture, enough to allow its top to swell into a gentle curve, upon which the bass and treble bridges would sit, their downward pressure meeting the apex of the opposing curve as if around a great barrel. The Klavierbau­meister admired his work: the impeccably matched parallels of the grain, the precise curvature of the crown. This particular soundboard would provide the heart for the factory's 66,825th piano. The frame of the case was built by other craftsmen, its five back posts sturdy enough to bear the weight of the sound­board and the iron plate. The pinblock was cut and fitted. The agraffes were seated into the plate at a height that would determine the speaking length of the strings, which were then strung; tuning pins were hammered in, and the action set and fitted. Cold-pressed felt was layered thick onto the wooden hammers, thinning appropriately toward the delicate treble side. Dampers were installed next, along with the trapwork of pedals and levers, dowels and springs. The case was ebonized after the guts were in, requiring countless coats. The finishers' arm muscles bulged above their rolled-up shirtsleeves. Next the instrument, nearly complete, was tuned, the ten­sion of each of the 220 strings adjusted to the correct pitch. Then it was regulated, the touch and responsiveness of the action attended to until the motion of the fingers on the keys would be properly transferred to the hammers that struck the strings. At last, after many years of effort by many expert hands, the piano was delivered to its final station for voicing. The Meister there lifted the linen blanket covering it and passed a hand over the shiny black top. Why should this piano be special? Each one was special, with its own soul and distinct personal­ity. This one was substantial but unassuming, mysterious but sincere. He let the linen drop onto the factory floor. "What will you say to this world?" he asked the instrument. He shaped the hammers one by one, listening to every string, shaving and minutely aerating the felt again and again. He was like a diagnostician, knocking the nerves below a patient's kneecap, measuring the response. The piano called out each time in compliant reply. Hello, hello. "Fertig," he said when the work was done. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, pushed the wisps of white hair away from his face. Standing back from the piano, he regarded this complete and brand-new entity that would be--after being played in properly--capable of incredible feats. The first few years were unpredictable, but over time it would open up and gather into itself a unique history. For now it was a perfect instrument, characterized only by its potential. The Meister fluffed his apron as he sat down on the barrel he'd borrowed for a seat and, flexing his fingers, considered which piece to christen the piano with. Schubert, his favorite composer. He would play the rondo of his penultimate sonata, the big A Major; the opening melody was pretty, with a feeling of hopefulness and joy that preceded its more pensive, agi­tated development. This would be the perfect inauguration of the glistening black Blüthner No. 66,825. "Listen!" he called out, but nobody could hear him above the factory's ambient noise. "Here she is born!" And he pressed his finger down on C-sharp, the first note of the rondo, listening hard, and it rang out to meet him with the innocence and power of a child's first cry. Finding it as pure as he'd hoped, he began to play the rest of the sonata. He would send off this shining new piano with as much optimism as he could gather, knowing it would no longer be as vestal once it was touched by its future owners' desperately human hands. Chapter Two Clara Lundy kicked a step stool against the front tire of an old 1996 Chevrolet Blazer and leaned over the engine, tossing her dark blond ponytail over her shoulder. She unscrewed the cap of the relief fitting and put a shop towel over it to catch the gas that leaked out when she pressed the valve. When the lines were bled, she stuffed the towel into her back pocket and went to her toolbox to grab the 16mm and 19mm wrenches and the quick-disconnect tool. Then, with an athletic jump, she disappeared into the yellow-framed pit so she could work from underneath. She removed the bracket, released the snap-lock fitting, and pulled the rubber hose off the outlet side of the filter first to keep the fuel from dripping in her eyes. She'd learned that lesson long ago in her uncle's garage and had never forgotten it. "Hey, Clara?" Peter Kappas, one of the shop owners' three sons, peered down at her. A halo of late afternoon sunlight out­lined his bulky silhouette. "That guy with the rack-and-pinion job's back again. He says it's still making noise." "Same noise or new?" "Popping. Bolts, probably." "Can you do it? I'm not done with this filter." "I promised the Corvette would be done by five." Clara slipped the new filter into the bracket. "Okay, give me fifteen. I'll get it up in the air and see what's going on. But if it's the mounting bolts, then you'll have to do the alignment again. You got time?" "For you?" "Stop." He raised his arms. "Kidding. Yeah, I can do it." After she tightened all the bolts and checked the lines, she went back up to prime the system. She turned the key to On, waited for the fuel pump to kick on and off, then switched the key to Off. She did that a few more times, and sitting there, she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror and was startled to see that she looked older than her twenty-six years, like she'd aged a decade overnight. Her eyelids, in spite of the little bit of makeup she'd put on, were still vaguely puffy from her cry­ing jag the night before. Her mouth was set so hard that tiny lines radiated from her lips; she'd been clenching her teeth. When she relaxed her jaw, her pale cheeks seemed to sag and her mouth turned down at the corners. There was a smudge of grease across her forehead--probably from having pushed her bangs out of her eyes--that resembled her late father's birthmark. She looked at herself, at his light brown eyes and pale eyelashes, their matching high cheekbones, and felt a gut punch at this unanticipated image of his face in the mirror. An old grief added to the new. She turned the key all the way, and the Blazer's engine fired up perfectly. "Clara! Phone for you!" someone called above the noises in the shop: the hydraulic torque wrench and the air com­pressor, the glide and slam of toolkit drawers, the relentless clinking of metal, the ever-present laïko music coming from a grease-covered boom box in the corner, the shouts in Greek and English. She wiped the stain from her forehead with the dirty towel as she walked over to the phone that hung on the wall. Peter's brother Teddy stopped her with a hand on her forearm. "It's Ryan," he said. "You might want to take it in the office." Who knew what they'd been saying about her and Ryan. Peter's mother, Anna, could read her face as though Clara were her own daughter and turn an opinion-- I don't think this Ryan is good for you --into a topic for general discussion. Clara usu­ally found herself offering supporting information without even meaning to, and the entire Kappas family soon knew all her personal business. She didn't mind, though; they were the closest thing to a real family she'd had in a long time. Clara nodded. The office was little more than a desk against the wall in the waiting area, between the water cooler and the coffeemaker. It was hardly private, but there weren't any cus­tomers inside at the moment, and Anna, who was behind the counter writing an order for parts, winked at her and said, in her thick accent, "I'll give you a minute." Clara sat down and tried not to look at the flashing caller-on-hold light on the phone. She gazed instead at the framed photos on the wall of the Sporades Islands: the family's white­washed villa, the curved rock beach, the impossible turquoise water. When she could avoid it no longer, she took a deep breath and picked up the line. "Hey," she said. "You're not answering your cell." "I'm working." "Whatever, Clara. Listen, I'm taking off for a few days so you can pack up your stuff. I really want you to be out by the weekend, okay?" "Wait, what? Seriously? I thought we were still talking about everything." "Clara, did you not hear me last night? I'm tired of waiting for you to make up your mind. You just don't want what I do." "I never said I didn't want the same thing, I just asked for time." She turned her body toward the wall. "Ryan, please." "I know you needed time, and I've tried to give it to you. But I can't keep putting your needs ahead of mine. I'm ready to move forward. I want a family. I'd like it to be with you, but if it can't be . . . well, what choice do I have?" "Look, I love you, Ryan, you know I do. But marriage is a big step. Why can't we just be together? Why's everything such a rush?" "What is it about making this permanent that freaks you out so much? I know you love me. Why can't you just say yes?" Clara sighed. She could change this conversation, change her entire life, with just one word. But she couldn't do it. "I don't know. I'm sorry." "Then we're done. I need you out. I need to move on." "So you're really going to kick me out? After two years you're giving me, what, four days to move? How do you expect me to do that? And where am I supposed to get the money for it?" "You know I wouldn't leave you on the street. I found you an apartment in East Bakersfield. I already put down the first and last months' rent. I figured this would make things easier." "Jesus, Ryan. Couldn't we have talked about it first? East Bakersfield? " He made a huffing sound. "Do you really care where you live? It seems like all you really care about is that damn garage." She balled the spiral phone cord into her fist, fighting the urge to cry again. Was she crying over losing him? Losing her home? Her own indecision? "The lease and key are on the kitchen table," he said. "When you're out, you can drop your old key through the slot." Clara rested her forehead against the wall and exhaled. "So that's it?" "Yeah, that's it." He paused, they both did, and she wondered if he'd say what he always did at the end of a phone call. You're my girl--you know that, right? She couldn't speak. She couldn't let go. She leaned forward in anticipation, waiting, yearning, yet reluctant to give in. "Good luck, Clara. I hope you figure out whatever it is you want, I really do. I'm just sorry it wasn't me." Then he hung up. She held the phone against her ear, listening to her heart­beat until the busy signal began beeping. When she turned around, Peter was standing at the door. "You okay?" he asked. She didn't answer right away. Maybe she hadn't really loved Ryan after all, certainly not how he wanted her to. But she was used to being with him, to having someone to go home to, and life with him had been easy. "Will you help me move?" she asked Peter. He pulled off his ball cap-- Havoline, Protect What Matters --and raked his fingers through his thick black hair. "Of course," he said, and put the cap back on. "You know I will." Excerpted from The Weight of a Piano: A Novel by Chris Cander All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.