Tuesday, October 4, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott is a contemporary relationship novel, the kind of thing I usually stay away from because (except for romance) contemporary relationships tend to come across as rather bleak. (Small scale bleak - not historical fiction bleak which is grand scale and entirely different.) Nevertheless, I saw this blurbed elsewhere and I was intrigued enough to request if from the library. And once I started reading it, I really couldn’t stop.

The book opens with a short part one, a prologue really, set in 2004. Henry Cage, the wealthy, upright protagonist is reluctantly attending a funeral he cannot avoid. It’s the funeral of his eight year old grandson. As the prologue unfolds, we learn that his grandson died as the result of a grisly, violent accident, and Henry feels responsible.

We then jump back to 1999. Henry is being forcibly retired from the company—a London business consulting firm— that he helped found. The company is growing beyond Henry’s vision and Henry is tired of being the voice of restraint, so he goes without a fight. He is wealthy and respected. Life should be good, right?

But no. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of his divorce from his wife and resulting estrangement from his son. And we learn that his ex-wife is now dying of cancer. And then, late one night, through no fault of his own, Henry comes across a violent sociopath who starts stalking him.

Henry has to deal with the loss of his job and the routine that gives his life meaning, he has to confront his loneliness and the mistakes he has made throughout his life, and he has to figure out what to do about an increasingly crazy/creepy situation.

The author does a wonderful job of painting character sketches of a diverse bunch of people. Although some of the plotting hinges on coincidences that felt a bit stretched, the characters were realistic enough to make it all work.

Henry is a sympathetic protagonist. He’s flawed, but it does seem his suffering may be disproportionate to his crimes. (Particularly when contrasted with his sociopathic nemesis.) The book almost follows a redemptive arc with Henry going along a path of self-discovery, plunging to the depths, and finally finding solace and embracing his own need for humanity, for love of family, etc. etc. This was almost a book where I could have turned the final page and found a satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, I was naggingly aware of that part one. I knew what was down the road for Henry. So I knew how futile it all was going to be for him.

If you like character-driven contemporary fiction and good writing and don’t mind having a dark cloud hanging over you for awhile after the book is done, I’d recommend this. However, as for myself, after this I’m calling a moratorium on depressing books.