Thursday, August 09, 2007

review: Broken Chords



Broken Chords by Barbara Snow Gilbert. Front Street, 1998
(1-886910-23-5) $15.95; 2007 (978-1-59078-534-8) $9.95 pb

The process of finding out what we truly love is one of the most important parts of discovering who we truly are--but sometimes finding out what we don't love is just as important. This thoughtful novel offers a sincere, accessible look at what it means to be an artist and what it means to be yourself.

They never use the word "prodigy" in her house, but the fact is that Clara (named for pianist Clara Schumann) has been studying piano since she first climbed on the piano bench at the age of three, and started playing Mozart's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star theme." Now, at seventeen, she is just weeks away from the final of the Nicklaus competition; winning will mean a scholarship to Juilliard, a debut concert, and almost certainly a career as a concert pianist. But even amid her preoccupation with the competition, Clara doesn't want to give up everything else in her life, sneaking out against her parents' orders to play a tiny part in a school production of "The Nutcracker." Then a slip during dance rehearsal makes Clara fall on her wrist, an injury that will stop her playing piano until just two weeks before the final.

With a big space in her schedule where lessons and three hours of practice a day used to be, Clara suddenly has time for new things: movies, her first football game--and Marshall, an attractive fellow competitor whose struggle to afford piano study has him living in his practice cubicle. As she sees the passion that drives Marshall to play, against all obstacles, Clara begins to wonder if something is lacking in herself. And for the first time, a terrifying, almost blasphemous thought drifts into her head: "Was this what ordinary life would be like? If she didn't play?"

Concentrating on the important relationships in Clara's life, with her demanding mother, her resentful little brother, the admiring Marshall and her loving but enigmatic piano teacher Tashi, Gilbert skillfully weaves many small threads into a solid thematic whole, showing how Clara begins to understand the important decision she has to make. Although the air of the story is often a touch ornate and romantic, with a mystic Russian folktale as an underlying motif, it is grounded in reality; the bittersweet ending is strong and satisfying, leaving us sure not only that Clara made the right decision, but that she made it for the right reasons. (12 & up)

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