A young musical prodigy wrestles with the burden of his rare talent in Openshaw’s (A Single Flash of Light, 2011) novel.
Teenager Kevin Phillips began playing the piano around age 5, taught by his mother, and immediately displayed incredible ability. He lives on the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania, in a working-class neighborhood, and he’s seethingly resentful of his wealthier neighbors, particularly those who attend the prestigious Walcott Academy. However, his parents insist that he audition for admission there, and he’s accepted. There, he has trouble adjusting and making friends, despite his admiration for his piano teacher, Mr. Hildebrand. He’s infatuated with a beautiful senior, Greta Lindsay, but also disdainful of what he perceives as her life of facile privilege. After Kevin’s father loses his job, plunging the family into financial distress, Kevin becomes more uncomfortable with the distance between the wealth of his Walcott peers and his own modest circumstances. However, Kevin’s talent leads him to win several major piano competitions, preparing him for a serious music career. Also, he learns that there’s much more to Greta than his class-oriented caricature of her. He attends Boston University, mostly to be closer to Greta, who attends Brandeis, and he builds the beginnings of a brilliant future. But he’s ambivalent about the competitive and professional aspects of his artistic pursuits. Later on, after his wife, Madeline, suddenly dies in a tragic car accident, Kevin abandons his career, moves to Utah, and finds work with the Forest Service. He’s forced to reconsider his life choices yet again when, after 15 years apart, he’s reunited with Greta, now a divorced mother of two.
Openshaw artfully and patiently builds the relationship between Kevin and Greta, and their bond functions as a microcosm of Kevin’s development as a person. The novel’s protagonist is shown to be proud of his talent but also resistant to letting it fully define him; early on, that principled yearning expresses itself as a kind of arrogant haughtiness, and later, it’s chastened into maturity. The author’s prose is simple and free of literary embellishment, and the dialogue rings true, capturing the sometimes-clumsy character of real human speech. Openshaw does have a tendency, however, to unleash dramatic, jarring plot twists that feel contrived. For example, at one point, Kevin’s father spontaneously decamps for California and finds a new job that suddenly brings the family impressive wealth—a windfall that’s all the more peculiar due to the fact that it’s largely unexplained. Similarly, Kevin’s romance with Madeline, his eventual wife, is developed so quickly that it seems more like a parenthetical than a full-fledged subplot, designed simply to expedite Kevin’s rejection of a musical career. Nevertheless, Kevin does emerge as an engaging figure—a real genius who genuinely pines for a sense of normality. And Greta, while a supporting player, is every bit as deep, with a complex life shaped by a trauma in her youth that forever haunts her.
A thoughtfully rendered story about the twin attractions of art and love.