How art can both enhance and hinder our lives in unexpected ways is the absolute essence of “The Weight of a Piano” by Chris Cander. The novel’s chapters alternate between the experiences of one woman whose troubled life is kept at bay by the music she can draw from the piano and the experiences of the piano’s present owner, a woman who has never really recognized a need to play it.
In 1962 Leningrad, Ekaterina Dmitrievna is 8 years old when she is left the burnished ebony Blüthner upright that belonged to a German client of her father, a piano tuner. The piano remains with “Katya” throughout her courtship by Mikhail Zeldin, a student and dancer. They marry, have a son they nickname Grisha and decide to come to America, out of necessity without the piano.
They find a hard life there, even after their eventual move to the west coast. Mikhail and Katya face the same struggle against poverty they had back in Russia. He has great difficulty learning English; she misses her homeland. He drinks too much; she longs for life back home.
Even a desultory vacation to Death Valley is no help to their marriage. Its desolate panoramas look too much like their Russian homeland. The Polaroid photos taken during the trip, rather than being consolation, only serve to exacerbate the problems in their marriage.
Then Katya’s piano manages to find its way back to them. Katya begins giving lessons. The music will bring Katya back to life, but eventually that same music will destroy her already volatile household.
In 2012 Bakersfield, Calif., Clara Lundy has owned that same piano for 14 years. She was given the piano as an early birthday present by her father one week before both her parents died in a house fire just as she was turning 12.
Now Clara makes a living as a car mechanic, working for the auto shop owned by the family of Peter Kappas, a kind and patient young man even more taken with her after her unpleasant break-up with her current boyfriend. Strapped for money, Clara places an online ad offering to sell the piano for $3,000.
The ad is answered by Greg Zeldin, a photographer who wants to feature the piano in an art project utilizing Death Valley. Clara quickly investigates his website: “His style was distinctive. He seemed to like stark contrasts: big swaths of sky and earth and human figures stirring between … She found it interesting that in the portraits few of the subjects’ faces were clear; instead, their identities were obscured in profile or beneath heavy shadows or simply blurred.”
Clara ultimately cannot bring herself to sell the piano, though she is finally allowed to be a fifth wheel on Greg’s photo shoot, one that ends in a most astounding manner.
“The Weight of a Piano” is an unexpectedly surprising novel. That old Blüthner upright remains a sort of emblem, an object used to inexorably link all the book’s characters to the past. It has been so for Katya. It has been so for Clara. It has been so for Greg. (Yes, Greg turns out to be Grisha, Katya’s beloved son.)
That piano, it turns out, is not just an object of supreme hope, but of unadulterated melancholy as well. Clara wonders if the piano has become “just another one of those heavy objects silently fleeing their histories.” Greg says, “This piano has been playing in my mind all my life, and nobody knows that. Nobody knows how it plays and plays and plays in my head … and I can’t make it stop.”
What must we do, then, to move forward as we try to create art — as we try to live life? That’s the question Chris Cander ponders on every page of her exquisite new novel.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.