Two love stories, a murder mystery, and a mother-daughter tale, juiced with plenty of comedic and sexy moments, figure in my March Selection of the Month, The Piano Teacher: A Novel of Swan’s Knob. After several pedagogical Selections here at GRAND PIANO PASSION™ — Your Own Two Hands and What to Listen for in Music—the time seemed ripe for a good yarn. This debut by Southern novelist Lynn York (see video below in which Lynn reads several passages) is the kind of good story you can curl up with for hours, marveling at the characters while appreciating the crafted language.
The protagonist, Miss Wilma, is a sixty-something piano teacher and organist of Swan’s Knob. A widow, her husband’s death occurred twenty years before in the back yard of their home under mysterious circumstances. Unbeknownst to Miss Wilma, she is the object of affection of Roy Swan, a descendant of the town’s founders. Don’t be fooled by this book’s calm and somewhat slow beginning when Miss Wilma plays the organ at a Swan’s Knob society wedding. While she thrums “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on the organ, unresolved questions and secret relationships simmer.
Classical piano music is a pleasant accompaniment in The Piano Teacher. Miss Wilma’s son-in-law is a Julliard dropout, while her favorite student, James, comes from a struggling black family and is an aspiring scholarship student for the conservatory. James plays Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude with grace. Classical music also makes interesting cameos in the language, such as when Harper, the Julliard dropout, tries to woo his wife Sarah with a nod towards their passionate sex life. “I know what you will do,” Harper whispers, “Quiver. It is a perfect A played on an open string, a whole note, four counts.”
Yet on the whole, rather than piano lessons, the principal themes of this book are relationships, life, and love set against the backdrop of a hamlet in North Carolina. I enjoyed Lynn York’s occasional descriptions of the tobacco farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains. York has a gift for peppering the language with Southernisms. I laughed when Miss Wilma, about to neck in the car like a teenager, does not “give a flying buttress.”
And too, some of the characters’ self-consciousness about stereotypes makes this novel distinctly Southern. In one of the novel’s pivotal scenes, Miss Wilma’s daughter, Sarah, flees to Manhattan for a weekend where she goes drinking with a group of Julliard graduates. Unable to avoid one pipe-smoking musician’s amusement at her accent, Sarah begins to tell “stories about fatback and cows and other things she knew nothing about, and to field questions about a life in a South that resembled…a little town built on a back lot in Hollywood.”
If you’re in the mood to set aside classical piano sheet music and take a break with a good novel, The Piano Teacher is just the ticket.