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Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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Guilty of the Crime

The False Friend: A Novel by Myla Goldberg (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95)

There’s a saying that has been going around for years in the fields of entertainment and sports, “When the legend conflicts with the truth, always choose the legend.”   The distinction between the public story and actual events is what preoccupies Celia, the female protagonist of The False Friend.   Celia, an Illinois State Auditor, lives in Chicago but she’s returned to her small hometown in the formerly forested wilds of New York State to make a confession.   It seems that twenty years earlier Celia and her best friend Djuna and three other girls walked into a dense forest; only four of them walked out.   Djuna was never seen again.

The official story of Djuna’s disappearance is that she was picked up by a man driving a car – a man who stopped on the road by the edge of the forest and convinced her to get into the car.   That man was her killer.   This is the public story that the four girls told to the police and to their parents.   It was never questioned.   But Celia was the girl walking closest to Djuna on that fateful day and she’s now willing to disclose what factually happened…  Or, what she believes in her mind’s eye actually happened.

Celia has a somewhat naive faith in the premise that once she tells her version of the truth everything will be made better.   She also thinks that her former classmates will readily accept her version of the truth.   She’s seeking absolution and is excited that it’s about to be granted to her belatedly.   But the funny thing is that once she meets with the other girls (those willing to communicate with her), they don’t buy into her story.   Each one is absolutely certain that she saw Djuna being lured into the stranger’s automobile.

Author Myla Goldberg does a fascinating job of translating what is essentially a small story into a larger one about our roles and responsibilities in society.   If all of those around us wish to accept one version of events, of facts, what right do we have to say they’re wrong?   Sometimes there’s far more comfort to be had in the public story, the legend, than in simpler frail human events.

When reading this novel, each reader will come to think of certain events in his/her own childhood.   We may be sure that things happened a certain way on a certain date, only to find that our family members are wedded to an entirely different version.   Telling those around you that they’re wrong only makes them feel uncomfortable, if not angry.   (Thus, we all have sometimes accepted the group’s story instead of our own.)

Goldberg has created a fascinating and extremely engaging novel in Friend.   Her calm, deliberate style will call to mind Catherine Flynn (The News Where You Are) or Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass).   The uncertainty over an event that happened decades earlier is also a bit similar in storyline to Lisa Unger’s recent novel Fragile.

Goldberg’s talented prose will cause the reader to read and re-read several lines such as these:

“The school building itself was utterly unchanged…  The opposite edge of the walk displayed a gray boulder the size of a crouching child.   On it were carved the words JENSENVILLE HIGH, Gift of 1993…  The rock reminded Celia of a marker designating the future resting place of herself and her former classmates, all of them to be interred beneath in eternal, obligatory return.”   (Whew)

At the conclusion of The False Friend, Celia must make a critical choice – Will she continue to dispute the perceived history of a local tragedy or will she come to side with the community’s accepted version of events?   You will need to read this intelligently told tale to find out what decision she makes.   You will then wonder if you would have made the same choice.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The False Friend will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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