Oates’ first novel delivers a warm love story that mixes music with questions of morality.
Matthew Hughes, a successful but lonely Boston lawyer, struggles with intimacy with others as he deals with his father’s death eight years before. Catherine Verlag, a concert pianist who teaches in a local conservatory, has imposed abstinence on her relationship with her fiance, Steve Berg, in hopes of rekindling their formerly close friendship. When Matthew hears Catherine perform at a concert, he’s overcome with emotion, and when he’s introduced to her after the performance, he’s immediately smitten—although Catherine barely takes notice of him. With the help of a family friend, Matthew manages to obtain private piano lessons with Catherine. She’s annoyed, at first, at having to lower her talents to teach a beginner, but as they spend time together, she realizes that Matthew has a way of bringing out her deepest feelings—and that he’s already quite skilled at the piano. At times, the author displays a deep empathy for her characters, eloquently conveying their unique thoughts and emotions. For example, when Catherine overhears Matthew playing at a concert level during his practice, her romantic feelings for him become real; “[P]erhaps, he does, after all, like me,” she thinks as she scurries home, unsure of what this revelation might mean for her engagement. For Matthew, piano playing brings up powerful memories of his dead father: “[H]e steadied his breathing and let his sorrow pour itself through his re-empowered fingertips as they at once stimulated catharsis and gave the gentle caress of consolation.” At other times, however, the novel becomes overtly moral and didactic; for example, when Catherine thinks about her sister’s promiscuity, she decides that “her sister’s inner soil needed to be tilled if her outward behavior were to ever change.” The plotlines of Catherine’s failed engagement, Matthew’s repressed grief, and their suppressed love eventually come together, but readers may find the ending a bit anticlimactic. Overall, although the plot lacks surprises, Oates’ fine writing carries the story along.
A brief novel with lovely prose and lively characters, but hampered by an occasionally moralistic tone.