THE PRAGUE SONATA

An elegant foray into music and memory.

A musical mystery set against the backdrop of a nation shattered by war and loss.

How many piano sonatas did Ludwig van Beethoven write? A music student might be quick to say 32—but that disallows the possibility that there’s one hidden somewhere or one by Mozart or Haydn that no one has ever seen before. That’s the conceit that Morrow (The Forgers, 2014, etc.) spins with this sonically rich novel, in which a Czech woman, Otylie Bartošová, only steps ahead of the German invaders in 1939, divides her inheritance among family and friends—namely, an anonymous Classical-era score given to her by her father and now split up into three, rendering it essentially without value to the avaricious Nazis. On immigrating to America, Otylie loses sight and hope of the treasure—part of which resurfaces years later in contemporary New York, beguiling a musicologist named Meta Taverner, who “knew it was impossible she had stumbled on another Beethoven Werk ohne Opuszahl in deepest, darkest Queens” but presses on, having now found a new source of meaning in a life burdened with quiet tragedies. She goes to Prague, seeking clues. Morrow delights in local color, in the “home of the Golem and crazy Rudolf’s equally crazy alchemists, not to mention Kafka’s bug,” though he works in an intriguing counterintuition: who’s to say that the manuscript isn’t in Prague, Texas, or Prague, Nebraska? The story, which runs a touch too long, takes a conventional whodunit twist with the introduction of a competing musicologist who wants the glory (and money) for himself even as Meta hits walls that induce a crisis of confidence in her abilities—and therein lies something of a leitmotiv. Yet, with the help of a dogged journalist and other allies, Meta works her way toward a hard-won resolution. As she says, “Sometimes in life what’s broken can’t be put back together,” to which Otylie replies, “Or maybe it was never truly broken at all.”

An elegant foray into music and memory.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2715-0

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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