Review: The Piano Student

“The more famous my admirer, the more powerful the high”––Nico Kaufman, a promising young pianist, is taken under the wing of the venerable maestro, Vladimir Horowitz, beginning a love story saturated with desire and regret. They meet each other through clandestine trysts and exchange passionate letter-correspondences with the backdrop of the Third Reich culminating in power. Although their romance is largely kept at a distance, physically and sometimes psychically, they meet each other’s needs in their tumultuous relationship: Horowitz seeks romance outside the constraints of his loveless marriage, and Kaufman lusts for adoration and attention. But the possibilities are left unexplored, from prolonged intimacy and public affections; the regrets they harbor linger long after the relationship’s end.

Lea Singer, a German cultural historian, has penned biographies of Chopin and Mozart under her legal name, Eva Gesine Baur. In this novel, she draws from unpublished letters Vladimir sent to Nico throughout their relationship. She unfolds the story alongside the harrowing rise of Nazi Germany and the fascist threat that looms over the lovers. Though, it looms distantly for Horowitz, whose prestige grants him privileges that keep him largely immune. Piano-playing has granted him access not only a guise to take a student in his tutelage, but also to fraternize among the upper echelons of the music world. With Kaufman, he teeters the boundaries to liberation, knowing he has a lot to lose. Regret will formulate their memory of the relationship: “It wasn’t the things he’d said or that may have been better left unsaid that troubled him back then; it was the things he hadn’t said and hadn’t asked.”

The novel begins with a mystery involving Reto Donati, attempted suicide, and Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei”, an overture to the ensuing story where Kaufman distracts Donati from his woes with details of his love affair. Donati’s identity is concealed for the better part of the first quarter of the novel and he serves as an active listener, guiding Kaufman with prompted questions and an empathetic ear. It raises the question of what substance Donati’s character brings to the larger narrative and why his circumstances weren’t explored further; a compelling mystery that I wanted to unravel alongside Kaufman’s story. When Donati’s wife makes a brief, singular appearance with two golf clubs to clear vases off shelves into kaleidoscopic shards on the marble floor, we are afforded a glimpse of insight into Donati’s past. In it, a woman with a golf club and a vengeance. I’m already hooked.

Besides the golf-club wielding woman’s brief appearance, Wanda Toscanini, daughter of famed Arturo Toscanini and wife of Horowitz, is the only other woman who graces the story in a significant way. She is renowned in her own right, but her prominence is only pegged to her relationship to these men; she is a daughter by profession, later a wife. Horowitz weds her because she is her father’s progeny, granting him proximity to fame and prestige, putting her in the position of the prime enemy for both Horowitz and Kaufman. Her presence to them is an oppressive and limiting one: “Wanda slapped the back of [Horowitz’] hand; that woman could switch off his laughter like switching off a lamp.” She is described as cold and calculating, as the manipulative mastermind puppeteering Horowitz in his uncertainty. She has no overwhelming beauty to make up for her lack of warmth; her talent and wit are overshadowed and dismissed by the towering greats who surround her. She is vilified largely because, to the men, she is the reason they cannot love freely. Though it seems to me they may overestimate Wanda’s executive powers, much to her chagrin.

Singer writes without direct quotation marks, muddling the clarity of who’s speaking. Sometimes it is unclear if a ‘he’ pronoun refers to Kaufman or Donati; sometimes it’s unclear whether it’s the narrator too. I found myself fumbling through parts, making sure I was reading it right, but sometimes there was no telling whether it was one character or the other. Instead, I took a step back to appreciate the story weaving in and out of the present and the past fluidly, undulating between expressions of time. Singer takes you along for a ride, reproducing memories through storytelling, and in her expertise as a historian, she grounds the story in history and its artifacts. In the case of these lovebirds, their music and love letters.

Review written by Britina Cheng

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