I picked up The Upright Piano Player at around the same time as Hotel du Lac, as I was evidently in a literary fiction kind of mood. This does contrast nicely with my last read though: older vs within the last decade, established writer vs debut writer, that kind of thing. And with a hint of a thriller about it, I had some moderately high hopes for this one.
In The Upright Piano Player, the reader follows Henry, a man well known for both his business sense and his strong set of principles. After he takes early retirement, however, he finds his well-ordered life beginning to fall apart around him. His ex-wife contacts him with news that she’s terminally ill, his son reappears in his life after years of estrangement, and he finds himself the victim of sustained harassment starting with an assault on the eve of the new millennium. All of these stand to test the defences that he has built up over the course of his lifetime.
After all the cover quotes describing The Upright Piano Player as wise and moving and elegant, I was severely disappointed by the jumbled mess of a book that I actually got. I think that the main problem that this book has is a lack of focus, a flaw that mires the entirety of the book in self-congratulating meandering that believes itself to be deep words of wisdom. Mostly this can be seen in the two main plot strands that trouble Henry throughout: his turbulent history and reintegration with his estranged family, and the harassment that he suffers at the hands of a stranger. If this were a competent debut, the two plot threads would at some point become entwined with one another and feed into each other’s tension. As it is, the two never meet in any meaningful way, often being split by a literal ocean. It feels very much like the author was torn between writing a thriller and writing the next great novel about the human condition. Apparently unable to pick between the two, he slaps both of them onto the page and cobbles together a semblance of a plot where both could maybe happen simultaneously.
Another example of this lack of focus is the glaring difference between the main body of the novel set in 1999-2000 as described above, and the brief section of Henry’s life in 2004 that is narrated at the beginning. I am in two minds about this section. On the one hand, it is the only section that isn’t desperately pedestrian in writing style, and it actually manages to convey a startling amount of emotion in a very short space. When I read that first part, with Henry attending the funeral of his own grandson whose death he feels more that partly responsible for, I was really excited for the rest of the story. On the other hand, it is completely and utterly pointless in regards to the actual story. It never comes up again. I don’t know, maybe Abbott had to bump up the word count or something, but I cannot forgive the way that such a heartfelt piece of writing could just be stapled on at the beginning like that, with no intent to resolve anything brought up as a result of that funeral scene. I would have read the novel about a grandfather trying to deal with guilt and grief, that could have been interesting. As it was, it is an impressive opening to a damp squib of a book. Highly infuriating.
The last thing that bothers me is the weird way that the characters act sometimes, especially Henry’s family. There are times during the novel where characters do things that seem to serve no other purpose than to cause Henry suffering, even if it was something that people generally wouldn’t do in those circumstances. The most obvious example of this is the breakdown of Henry’s marriage to his ex-wife Nessa, and the subsequent estrangement from the rest of his family. So, Henry’s marriage ends when Nessa has an affair to make up for her husband’s frequent absences at work; when it comes out publicly and her new squeeze leaves her in the lurch, Henry rejects her when she tries to come back to him. All well and good so far. It’s tragic, but I can understand why he wouldn’t want to be with someone who can so easily betray his trust. What I can’t understand is his son’s decision to side entirely with his mother to the point of cutting off all contact with Henry. Sure, the man is curmudgeonly and a workaholic, but this is not something that people decide to do lightly and it certainly isn’t a cruel decision of his regardless of what the book would like us to think. As such, the son’s decision is utterly mind-boggling, especially when you find out that Henry was a grandfather for 4 years without even knowing that his son had gotten married, let alone had children. That the son doesn’t once consider whether that was a bad decision is kind of horrifying. That’s a level of callousness that I would hope most people would never deliberately inflict on their family. The fact that Nessa appears to be characterised as only a step below the second coming of Christ only makes this whole family debacle all the more frustrating. Just because she’s dying doesn’t mean you can’t depict her like the flighty bitch that she is.
This is a mess through and through. The lack of focus is the biggest flaw, with the narrative vacillating between a story about family ties and a thriller, with a partially written study on grief stuck to the beginning with apparently no thought of how it affects or interacts with the rest of the novel. Additionally, it would appear that some characters do things specifically so that the main character can suffer a bit more. And to add the cherry on top, the title of The Upright Piano Player doesn’t have any significance whatsoever. It would have been more accurate if they’d titled it “Misery for Misery’s Sake”. 1.5/5
Next review: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis