Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Reconstructing Music

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow


The publishers describe this book as follows:

In the early days of the new millennium, pages of a weathered original sonata manuscript—the gift of a Czech immigrant living out her final days in Queens—come into the hands of Meta Taverner, a young musicologist whose concert piano career was cut short by an injury. To Meta’s eye, it appears to be an authentic eighteenth-century work; to her discerning ear, the music rendered there is hauntingly beautiful, clearly the composition of a master. But there is no indication of who the composer might be. The gift comes with the request that Meta attempt to find the manuscript’s true owner—a Prague friend the old woman has not heard from since the Second World War forced them apart—and to make the three-part sonata whole again. Leaving New York behind for the land of Dvorák and Kafka, Meta sets out on an unforgettable search to locate the remaining movements of the sonata and uncover a story that has influenced the course of many lives, even as it becomes clear that she isn’t the only one after the music’s secrets.


Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and that, combined with my musical background made this book very appealing to me, and thankfully this book lived up to at least some of my expectations. First, I love historical fiction, and Morrow gave me a good portion of this, with pieces of the action taking place during both World Wars and the Czech “Velvet Revolution,” although most of this novel takes place at the early part of the 21st century. Of course, my love of Prague was satisfied by many loving descriptions of that city, which made me nostalgic to walk those charming streets again. In addition, Morrow is either very musically knowledgeable, or he has done some excellent research for this book (I understand it took him 10 years to complete it), because he certainly seemed to know his stuff in that area. For example, not many people would know what a WoO is, or understand so fully how a sonata is constructed. Finally, there’s a nice little romance that runs through the book, balanced with a good heaping of mystery and intrigue, to keep the emotional tensions up and move the plot along. All this, together with a gently lyrical, yet unpretentious writing style gave this book a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere, despite the present complexities and clandestine history of this manuscript.

Another good thing about this book is the way Morrow develops his characters. When we are introduced to Meta, we are almost automatically sympathetic to her, and seeing as she’s the major protagonist here, that’s certainly a good thing. Also, early in the book we’re introduced to Jonathan, Meta’s boyfriend, who doesn’t seem a good fit for her, which is something that works out well later in the book. The other characters all seem to fall quietly into place like pieces of a puzzle. There’s Otylie, the manuscript’s owner, Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor and Gerrit, an American-Czech journalist living in Prague, and Meta’s eventual romantic interest. Along with them Morrow carefully builds a set of antagonists who all seem to want to get their hands on the manuscript for various reasons. There are other characters along the way as well, all of whom seem to get about equal minor billing, and are rounded enough to be both believable and work nicely to enhance the overall story.

While all this sounds pretty good, there are several reasons why I can’t give this book five stars. One problem I had with this book was that several of the lesser characters, although realistic, felt a bit clichéd, and somewhat romanticized, as if Morrow liked them too much to give them any real flaws. There were also some inconsistencies in the plot that bothered me. For example, I wasn’t terribly convinced that Otylie’s husband would have been so protective of this manuscript that Otylie’s father gave her. Furthermore, I felt that Morrow tried to get a bit too much intrigue into this story, and that not only lengthened it (perhaps a bit too much), but also frustrated me as a reader during these passages, since I just wanted Morrow to get back to the essence of the story. On the other hand, I also felt that Morrow should have fleshed some of the sections about Otylie out a bit more, and possibly placed some of them earlier in the book, since their relative thinness and late appearance in the novel was probably what made the climax fall a bit flat for me. In other words, there were some things that were built up too much, while others didn’t get enough buildup for my taste. Finally, I was slightly disappointed that Morrow decided to attribute this sonata to such a famous composer, but I’m guessing that with everything else Morrow needed to research, raising up a lesser known maestro might have been a bit too much.

In any case, overall, this book deserves a whole lot of praise, from the fascinating story idea, to the excellent research into the music world, and with a cast of characters, most of whom were drawn beautifully, and developed with a very loving hand. The fact that it didn’t bother me that this story hits on the Holocaust, but has only one Jewish character, is also noteworthy. I think that most historical fiction lovers will enjoy this book, and despite my few niggles, I can confidently recommend it with four out of five stars.




Grove Atlantic released "The Prague Sonata" by Bradford Morrow on October 13, 2017. This book is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.