Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
“He loves women, appreciates them as much as any man, but ultimately they find themselves achingly hungry with him. And he refuses to feed them. His artistry for playing the piano seduces them. His lack of artistry as a man is why they leave.”
American author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova is not a stranger to hard yakka and broaching the gritty and the unspeakable in all aspects of her work. The author’s latest novel, ‘Every Note Played’, expertly complements the emotion, compassion and success of her debut novel ‘Still Alice’ and its Oscar-winning screen adaptation. Genova’s ‘Every Note Played’ confronts us with the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decline of the character Richard Evans, a gifted and celebrated concert pianist, suddenly diagnosed in his mid-forties with motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
‘Every Note Played’ begins with short, fluid chapters, which effortlessly paint a portrait of a world and its characters very early in the book. The reader is introduced to Richard, a successful musician, passionate about his piano; unapologetic about his talent, his womanising and his broken family. As the disease ravages his failing body, steals away his career, his mobility and his dignity, the ALS inevitably focuses Richard’s attention on his failed marriage, and the distance between him and his adult daughter, Grace.
But Richard’s ex-wife, Karina, is not blameless in the breakdown of their marriage, which ended three years before. Early in the story the reader begins to wonder, Oh boy, what on Earth did Karina do? Karina, who migrated to the United States from Poland when she was eighteen, was also a gifted pianist. But Karina gave it all up; or, perhaps more fittingly, tossed it aside and stomped on it when motherhood, a strained marriage and a move to a new city complicated things. To the point where the mere idea of playing piano and her beloved jazz music ever again was simply taboo.
There are many more tragic layers to the story other than the chokehold of the terrible disease that is ALS. The other layers are even more tragic than the portrayal of ALS itself. Particularly heartbreaking to me was the broken and toxic relationship of Richard with his father who seemed to have acted like a cranky unreasonable child, throwing tantrum after tantrum during Richard’s bullied childhood.
Now struggling to adapt to his new life, Richard composes letters to his father but never sends them.
While ‘Every Note Played’ sheds deserved attention on ALS sufferers and the struggles of their carers and families, the book is not, to me, really about ALS. The horrific disease is the backdrop to a story about complicated people, relationships, family, communication and most of all, being human.