A talented teenage musician explores romance, faith, and music in Philbrick’s (Everbloom, 2017, etc.) coming-of-age novel.
Clive Serkin is a 17-year-old piano prodigy and the son of Claude Serkin, the conductor of the Chicago Philharmonic. He’s bored with his “old, gray-haired, Bach obsessed piano teacher,” Saul Koussevitsky, so he begins taking lessons in secret with middle-aged, world-renowned pianist Clare Cardiff. She recently put her fast-paced, concert-driven life on hold and moved to Chicago after her abusive husband, Nero Cardiff, announced that he wanted them to take a break. As Clive’s romantic feelings for Clare grow, she begins to see him as the son she never had. His already excellent musicianship improves enough to gain him admittance to the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Russia. All the while, Clare grapples with memory lapses, and she’s later diagnosed with early-onset dementia. The diagnosis forces Clare to move back in with Nero, and Clive is left to perform in Moscow without his beloved teacher. Although the story begins with a familiar storyline—a talented child pushed too far by a parent’s dream—Philbrick, in clear prose, builds a story that breaks that mold. It does so with rich music history (including mentions of Clara and Robert Schumann’s relationship), nuanced characters (Nero uses his pottery skills to sculpt a child that he and Clare never had), religious themes, and a website that readers may visit to listen to specific pieces mentioned in the book. Clive and Clare’s “Love born on a bench” is delicately constructed; the two don’t do anything more than hold hands, but their intimacy is strong: “Clive drew close to her with romanticized desire. Her hand fit seamlessly in his as the black piano keys agree with the white ones.” Some scenes discussing religion feel preachy, but most add depth to the story and characters. In one scene, for example, Clare’s sister, Bethany, tells her, “All our lives have transcendent value”—and to Clare, that value is her music.
An emotional story set to the music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin.