Marcia and Michael Kleinman’s marriage—already sailing on rough waters—hits the rocks when a sudden onset of jaundice sends their son, Max, to the doctor. Initially inconclusive, tests eventually show a rare condition that will likely require a liver transplant. This crisis forces Marcia, the novel’s protagonist, to face the problems in her marriage and her dissatisfaction with life in general. Her mother was once a classical pianist (she recorded a few albums that “didn’t sell particularly well”), and Marcia also dreamed of a career as a musician, until marriage and motherhood sidetracked her. Now, faced with an ailing son, she plays piano again, finding release in her attempts to master some of Beethoven’s most challenging sonatas. Author Geller understands the drive of the artist. “It’s not the notes exactly,” Marcia says; it’s “capturing it. Capturing the music.” A neat sentiment—the difference between knowing technique and knowing music lies in the heart of the true artist—but one that perhaps underlines a problem with this novel: Sometimes it feels like Geller knows the notes but lacks the music. As such, the interpersonal notes—the overbearing mother, the distant husband, etc.—feel over-rehearsed, rote and drained of invention, leading to a finale that flirts with melodrama. Yet the novel succeeds because Geller, a pathologist, spends most of his time focused on a realm he understands very well: the world of medicine. There aren’t many works of fiction that focus so completely—and so devastatingly—on the process of illness: the meetings, the waiting, the diagnoses, etc. All of this is communicated with the cool tone of a great doctor giving a patient the bad news while looking her in the eye.
Medical drama outweighs interpersonal drama in this affecting debut.