My rating: 8/10.
An interesting book. Deeply engaging, though just a bit cold and clinical in style, to match, perhaps, the deeply bottled up hangups of the main protagonists, pianist Suzanne Markon and her recording engineer husband, Phillip. The title is indicative of the contents, in numerous ways.
I liked it.
As those of you who’ve been following my postings will already know, I’m presently very actively involved with preparing for our annual Regional Performing Arts Festival, which starts in early March. And though I didn’t mindfully consider the performing arts theme when I picked up this book, it was perhaps a Freudian impulse which prompted my plucking it from the display rack of New Releases at my last library visit.
That, and my remembrance of hearing good things about the book and the author. My impulse was rewarded; I’m glad I read the book, both because it was an engaging if rather sombre literary diversion from my mind-boggling pile of Festival paperwork, and because it has introduced me to an author I’d like to spend some more time with.
I’ve promised myself some personal catch-up time this morning to complete several blog reviews which have been simmering on the back burner, as it were, so I’m going to try to keep things short and to the point, especially in the case of those books which are recent and not at all obscure. The internet abounds with reviews for these books already, many of them so well-written that I am adding little to the conversation that is already taking place.
The high piercing wail reached him even before he got to the front door. so jarring that he dropped his keys on the flagstones. The wail sounded like a small creature being tortured, a bird, maybe. A demented form of birdsong. But there was no pause for breath or change in tone, no hint of sputtering life. The shriek kept up at that bizarrely high pitch, the far end of the keyboard, while he fumbled at the door and finally rushed inside, dropping his briefcase and laptop on the shelf in the front hall.
Where was she? It couldn’t be Suzanne. It wasn’t a human sound. He followed it through the living room, past the grand piano with open sheets of music – Bartók, Poulenc, Stravinsky, he registered automatically – and into the kitchen, where billows of steam seethed and rose in clumps from the red teapot, already forming cloudy patches on the tiles behind it. He tripped over her body, stretched out flat on the floor, on her back. She looked like a ballerina who falls back in a firm, elegant line, confident that her cavalier will be there to break her fall and propel her on to her next step. But no one had been there to catch her. Before he knelt to see if Suzanne was still breathing, he stepped over her to turn off the flame under the screeching pot.
But Suzanne is not breathing. As her husband Phillip discovers in the next few moments, she is, though still warm – as Phillip discovers as he caresses her hands and face – finally, irretrievably dead.
The story that follows is the dual portrait of two ambitious and talented people, yoked together in a relationship that transcends mere marriage. Suzanne and Phillip are both damaged souls who find a certain respite in each other’s company since their first meeting in high school. Their love is certainly passionate, at least at first, but a longer acquaintance reveals the core of ice in the heart of each, which ultimately will determine their twinned fates.
Suzanne has been a brilliant pianist since an early age, something of a child prodigy. After a chance encounter with an eccentric neighbour leads to a musical mentorship and a stint at Juilliard, it seems that the concert hall is Suzanne’s undoubted destination. She suffers, however, from crippling stage fright, which worsens with every succeeding engagement, to her bitter dismay. For though she loves her music for itself, for the deep emotional need it fulfills in her life, what she desires even more is the adulation of an audience, the continual reassurance that she is indeed a worthy person, that she is “real”.
Phillip, musically gifted though not to the degree that Suzanne is, has built himself a succesful career in the recording industry, and from the first is Suzanne’s most passionate promoter. He sees his wife’s true talent, and has lofty ambitions for her performing career. As she chokes on performance after performance, and as word of her inability to pull off a concert hall quality presentation spreads, her choice of venues narrows to the most prosaic, to her deep inner shame, and to Phillip’s obvious despair.
The bookings were in smaller and smaller places: a party for a volunteer ambulance squad; a benefit for a local Little League team held in a high school gymnasium for an audience of unwilling teenagers and their teachers; once, a ticket to her recital was the reward at a silent auction for a nursery school. But the panic didn’t change, and this she could not get used to…
…This must stop, she thought…She’d tell Phil she needed a break She knew what his arguments would be, and his ceaseless encouragement, which was beginning to cause her mild nausea… “Why don’t you give it up?” she said to him once …There was no need to explain what she meant. He looked at her with a stunned face. He was holding a container of milk, about to pour some, and he put it down because his hand shook. “Give it up? This is what we planned from the very beginning. Things are moving along. All you need is patience. Do you want to waste your God-given talent?”
God-given. She’d never expected to hear a word like that from him. If anything, the talent had begun to feel demonic…
Soon Suzanne has given up completely, and has slid into a passive acceptance of her failure. She becomes reclusive, spending her days watching television while Phillip is at work, and preparing elaborate meals for him as she seeks to fulfill her creativity by concentrating on cooking. She still practices daily, and teaches a few students, but she refuses to perform for an audience. And now she has a legitimate excuse; she is pregnant.
But even in this Suzanne and Phillip are about to face a heartbreaking disappointment. The pregnancy ends in a miscarriage and in Suzanne’s inability to conceive again. She drifts even further into her introspectively passive state of acceptance. Phillip is bemused and disappointed, but his own career is steadily becoming more successful; he now owns a recording studio, and is turning out highly regarding classical music CDS. His performers are thrilled with how their work sounds in the recorded form, Better, in fact, than they thought it would while they were playing.
For Phillip has started tinkering with the possibilities of cutting and splicing and layering the recorded music, and though he insists to himself that he is merely augmenting the recordings to what they should sound like, the practice is gaining a hold on him, especially as no-one seems to notice. So one day he suggests that Suzanne might want to produce a CD of her own, playing privately in the recording studio, with no audience to cause her to freeze up …
There is so much more going on in this novel than I’ve included above. We have an intriguing love triangle (or two), a tragic childhood accident which allows the character in question (Phillip) to justify his questionable moral behaviour, complicated family relationships and deeply complex friendships, and an endless array of intensely focussed (and sometimes slightly warped) creatively gifted people pursuing their various deeply personal goals.
The success that Phillip eventually engineers for Suzanne was inspired by, as the author discusses in her Author’s Note, by the real life example of pianist Joyce Hatto, whose sudden blaze of glory via stunning recordings of “her” works were found to be highly engineered by her husband.
From the flyleaf:
Two-Part Inventions begins when Suzanne, a widely-admired pianist, dies suddenly of a stroke. In the midst of his grief, her record-producer husband, Phillip, becomes deeply agitated: Suzanne’s reputation is based on a fraud which is about to be exposed in the classical music world. Phillip has built a career for his wife by altering her CDs using portions from recordings of other pianists. Syncing the alterations seamlessly, he has created a wide repertoire of flawless music with Suzanne getting sole credit.
In this psychological novel set in New York City, (the) author … guides the reader through a flawed marriage and calculated career. Beginning with Suzanne’s death and moving backwards in time, Schwartz examines Suzanne’s early years as a musical prodigy, her education at Juilliard, her life with Phillip and her unusual career, while contemplating the nature of truth, marriage, and the inner demon of thwarted ambition.
A sombre psychological novel describes this one well. There were occasional flat spots, though definitely not enough to mar the narrative. The overall tone, in my opinion, stylistically fits its characters quite perfectly.
Definitely an author worthy of further exploration: Lynne Sharon Schwartz