A concert pianist falls for a Chechen nationalist, with disastrous consequences.
Better known as a memoirist (After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, 2004, etc.), Hoffman displays in her second novel the same weakness that slightly marred her first (The Secret, 2002): The ideas are frequently better-rounded than the characters. Touring piano star Isabel Merton meets Anzor Islikhanov after a concert in Paris and embarks on a credibility-straining affair with this touchy “representative of the Chechen government.” Anzor sees condescension and offenses to his honor everywhere. He exhibits an alarming appetite for revenge against his country’s Soviet oppressors and sneering contempt for Westerners, variously dismissed as “self-indulgent…spoiled…stupid.” (It doesn’t help that the friends Isabel introduces to him are caricatures of vapid, well-meaning liberals.) He follows Isabel from Brussels to Copenhagen, Vienna, Prague and beyond, improbably taking her along to meetings with a kaffiyeh-clad man who might as well have “terrorist” tattooed across his forehead. The sense of an obtrusive, didactic authorial hand is reinforced by lengthy excerpts from the book Isabel is reading, a memoir by her former teacher Ernst Wolfe (another refugee from disaster who disdains sloppy Westerners), and by her meetings with a fellow Wolfe student who is now a famous cellist—and a stereotypically go-for-the-gusto contrast to sensitive Isabel. Hoffman nearly redeems 200 pages of this irritating build-up in the novel’s searing final section after a bomb goes off at Isabel’s concert in Barcelona. The pianist is hurled into a spiritual and psychological crisis: She can’t perform, she can’t practice, she can’t even listen to music. Echoes of Camus and Dostoevsky reverberate as Isabel wonders what possible meaning art can have in a world beset by violence and hatred. Her reclamation of beauty and discovery of a new passion make for a moving finale. If only it didn’t require such long and schematic preparation to get there.
Ambitious and elegantly written, but seriously overdetermined.