In the acknowledgments to her new novel, The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander writes that she got the idea for the plot when she heard about someone trying to give away a piano. Intrigued by the predicament, she asked for more details and was inspired to write a story about a young woman, Clara, whose father gave her a piano and, very soon after, died. It’s not unusual for people whose parents have passed away to feel the enormous weight of that absence, but for Clara, that emotional weight is matched by the weight of that piano.
Clara, who received the piano as a child, grows up to have a way with car engines but not much of a musical ear. The piano, with all its hassle and expense, carries with it Clara’s complicated feelings about her father and his expectations in giving it to her. It’s all she has left of him, but that doesn’t make it easy to deal with. She is constantly made to feel guilty that she cannot play it, and during an accident while moving it, the piano actually breaks her hand. She cherishes it, but struggles to deal with the emotional and literal pain it brings her.
Little does Clara know the piano has a long history of its own, one that intersects with hers in ways she can’t imagine. Alternating chapters tell the story of one of the piano’s previous owners, Katya, a gifted Russian pianist whose life was marked by heartache but who found endless joy in her music.
For Cander, the piano itself is something of a character, with a full and rich history all its own. When writing the novel she put a lot of thought into who had made and owned the piano throughout the years, how the piano eventually came to belong to Clara. But just because the piano came into Clara’s hands, does that make her responsible for all that weight, emotional and physical? What does it mean to respect the history of someone, or something else without taking responsibility for that history?
“[That question] is not something that I really answered, because I still struggle with it, but just exploring it made me feel better,” says Cander. “That speaks to a much broader set of concerns than just physical possessions, it speaks of cultural importance and social importance.” Ideas, experiences, and even physical objects draw people together. “Being respectful of that thread, that connection, is what makes us human.”
Clara is well aware of those threads, especially through the piano. She feels both the love of connection and the obligations it can bring. As she comes to understand more about the piano’s history and the part she might play in it, a part she may not want for herself, Clara has to decide if the piano’s past will direct her future.
But even considering these heavy themes, Cander never loses sight of the magic of music and the piano’s ability to bring it to life. While Clara’s story often deals with the piano as an object, Katya’s story is rooted in music, and the prose itself becomes lyrical in her chapters. Sprinkled throughout the novel are musical images, using terminology that Cander had to learn from scratch, having forgotten everything she learned from her beginner piano lessons as a kid. Coming from journalism, she’s no stranger to research and has a fascination for music even if she’s not much of a performer.
“I can’t play [the piano], nor can I sing,” says Cander, “but I love and respect music and the power that it has to connect people and that it has over our emotions.”
Chelsea Ennen is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.