When it comes to novels about musicians, the old maxim, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," immediately comes to mind: There's something ineffable about great music, and trying to put the listening or playing experience into words has led to some embarrassing moments in literary history. Salman Rushdie's rock novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is, for example, better left excised from his bibliography.
But in her new novel, Appassionata, former musician Eva Hoffman manages to avoid this fate by leaving out any awkward or poetic descriptions of the music itself.
The novel follows Isabel, a concert pianist who goes on tour in Europe shortly after leaving her husband, Paul. When Isabel and Paul, an attorney, first met, she'd been attracted to the way he anchored her more passionate nature. But over time, that same attribute began to bother her. "When did she stop wanting an antidote to the restlessness, and start wanting to pursue the restlessness itself?"
Whatever the source of Isabel's wanderlust, she pursues it through recitals and a heated affair with an equally passionate and prideful Chechen activist. But the restlessness takes her much further than she had wanted to go — into a spiral of violence, memory and Europe's overwhelming history — and she has to find her way back to stability.
Perhaps better known in the U.S. as a former senior editor and regular book critic for The New York Times, the Polish-born Hoffman is, in her own right, a lyrical and nimble writer. She comes at the problem of narrating Isabel's performances sideways, offering a fragmented stream-of-consciousness that skips from one audience member to another: "Ah, thinks Fernand Mercier, the melody, weaving meandering, lyrical, ah, the sheer beauty / Chopin, comparable / it's in me, weaving through me, she's poured it into me." These passages, which read as an authentic rendering of listeners' thoughts, are representative of the inventiveness Hoffman exhibits throughout the book.
Appassionata is a sophisticated work, and not just because it contains discussions of Chopin and is set against some of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It's also a nuanced look at the role of music in our lives, the creative process and, most inspiringly, the good and ill that follow when all restraints are removed from our day-to-day existence.