Sunday, February 28, 2021

Literary Wives #47

 Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

This is the 47th book read and reviewed for the Literary Wives online book discussion group! 
Check us out on Facebook and Twitter #LiteraryWives!

I have been totally out of it with regard to Literary Wives for quite some time now, 
but am determined to get back into this group on a regular basis. 
I have been reading the books but never getting a review posted.
As you can tell, I have neglected my blog for a very long time now. 
I also hope to remedy that and return to posting reviews much more routinely.

Please check out the other co-hosts' reviews:

Lisa Genova is one of my all-time favorite authors and I have now read all five of her books.
I can highly recommend each and every one of them. 
Each book features a character enduring a neurological disease. 
In this book we meet Richard, a professional pianist diagnosed with ALS and we learn of the changes to his physical body as well as his distressed mental health. 
But there is so much more than that included in Genova's books. 
Her characters are complex and realistic and she includes many more issues than just the main character's diagnoses and physical/mental decline. 
With all of this, Genova's humor comes through to relieve any depressive edge.

Richard Evans first encounters Karina in Sherman Leiper's Techniques class at Curtis. It takes all semester before he finally has the courage to speak to her. He is enamored with her Polish accent. Karina was born in Zabrze, Poland and emigrated to the United States by herself before she was even 20 years old. Her piano teacher, Mr. Borowitz, taught all his students to play Chopin:
In Poland, Chopin is as revered as Pop John Paul II and God. Poland's Holy Trinity (p 9)
That did make me laugh! Karina lost no time in leaving home because she was determined to not have the same life as her mother--remaining in Zabrze, married to a coal miner, and trying to raise five children. As she states,
Raised under Russian oppression, she'd seen more than a lifetime's worth of weeping 
before she could tie her own shoes. (p 119)

While Richard is a well-known virtuoso worldwide, Karina gives piano lessons in her living room. Most of her students take piano lessons so they can add "plays piano" to their college applications. None of them are serious enough (nor evidently skilled enough) to pursue piano  beyond high school. Eventually we learn that Karina actually outshone Richard when they were students. Her piano playing was much more emotive than his. But then Karina discovered and became enamored with jazz and began concentrating on that rather than classical music, enabling Richard to be the 'best' classical pianist at Curtis. Meanwhile, Richard accepts a faculty position at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, so they leave New York City where Karina was beginning to play jazz in local clubs. She finds upon landing in Boston that there is no such live jazz there as in New York, wondering if Richard was already aware of that fact... After just two years as a faculty member, Richard's musicianship jumps to a new/higher level--he is playing with emotion and 'feels' the music as never before. He begins playing concert tours around the world and allows Karina to relocate them wherever she would like. She selects a Boston suburb where she raises Grace, their sole child, basically as a single parent since Richard travels constantly. 

Grace moves a thousand miles away for college and Grace is lonely. First, Richard leaves as their marriage dissolves and the divorce is finalized, and then her daughter.
She's forty-five and divorced. Single. In Poland, she'd be considered a disgrace. 
But she's been in America now for over half her life. 
Her situation is common in this secular culture and imposes no shame. Yet, she feels ashamed. 
You can take the girl out of Poland, but you can't take Poland out of the girl. (p 15)
While attending a high school graduation party for one of her students she learns from a mutual friend that Richard has been diagnosed with ALS and canceled the rest of his current concert tour.

And now for that Literary Wives question:
What does this book say about wives 
or about the experience of being a wife? 

I admired Karina's fortitude for suggesting and then following through with Richard's move back into 'their' house. She received the house free and clear in the divorce settlement and Richard moved to a fourth-floor walkup in an elite area complete with an exorbitant mortgage. Though she visited him upon learning of his diagnosis, to say the visit was a wasted effort is an understatement as it ends with her breaking a bottle of his expensive wine on the kitchen counter just before she walks out. 
Part of her believes she caused his illness, 
even though she knows that such thinking is narcisistically absurd. How many times has she wished him dead? 
Now he's dying, and she's a despicable, hellbound, horrible woman for ever wishing such a thing, and worse, for having derived sick pleasure from it. (p 26)

Eventually Richards ends up with three aides who care for him a total of 4 hours throughout each day. But he makes a rash decision one day to take a walk by himself once his arms are both paralyzed and hanging uselessly at his sides. Needless to say, he becomes very tired after just walking three blocks and sits on a park bench to rest. It is as he is trying to make it back home that the laxative administered to him that morning decides to work. He is desperate and uses his voice-activated cell phone to call his neighbors for help, neither of whom are home. When he decides to call the home healthcare company he inadvertently gets Karina, who just so happens to be in the city for a doctor's appointment and is only a mile or so away. It is in the aftermath of getting Richard cleaned up, etc., that she realizes he needs more care than he can afford since he can't work and he must sell his place for enough to cover the high mortgage he owes. It is then she realizes he must move "home" and she must care for him. His father nor either of his two brothers would or could take over his care, and unfortunately, his mother died when he was just 19 years old. In effect, she is "it." Karina makes room for him in the den. Though he doesn't particularly like the fact that the door to the den must be left open, 
...a lack of privacy traded for the ability to come and go without needing to call 
for Karina to come and open the door. Like letting the dog out. 
He's an animal in a cage. A pig in a pen. An ex-husband in the old den. (p 130)
Again, I had to laugh!

Richard was quite aware that moving Karina from New York to Boston would deprive her of further refining her jazz playing at live venues. But he did it anyway. Turns out, he vehemently despises jazz music. He considers it to be "noise." In effect, as with so many of the books we've read and reviewed, the wife abandons her dream to follow the husband wherever he wants to go to pursue his dream. And then, Richard keeps having affairs with other women while on the road. Though he keeps referring to what Karina did to ruin their marriage, it isn't until almost the end of the book that we learn she had purposefully deceived him about having more children following Grace's birth. She had an IUD implanted and when she wanted to have it removed 10 years later, discovered the procedure would require surgery, so she had to confess to Richard about her decade-long deception. It wasn't just bad luck that she had never gotten pregnant, she had planned for no more children although he wanted more. (Of course he did! It's not as if he would be home to help raise them or anything!) 

In the wake of the divorce, and while he was married,
Richard's relationships with women had about the same shelf life as a carton of milk. (p 53)
The one who stayed longest actually left not long after the ALS diagnosis. 
To everyone's disappointment, he's never been able to love a woman the way he loves the piano. 
Not even Karina. (p 53)
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 piano seduces them. His lack of artistry as a man is why they leave. (p 54)
Richard even admits to his daughter, Grace, that he did chose the piano over her. Therefore, he spent little time with her and really doesn't know her, nor does she know him. 

As chewing and swallowing become more difficult, ALS patients lose weight. His NP at the ALS clinic recommends "high-fat, high-density foods and liquids" to help stabilize his weight. He replies, "Everything my cardiologist recommends." Kathy then admits, "We're not going to worry about heart disease." Richard thinks to himself,
Right. A heart attack would be a blessing. (p 59)

Early on when Richard could still use his left hand, he held a note with the pedal and just listened to it until it was gone...
Every note played is a life and death. (p 50)

Although Richard and Karina are initially in love, eventually, they each find ways to hurt the other throughout the years of their marriage. I believe such things can and do happen in some long-term relationships. (Probably more so than we know...) Resentment grows and actions are taken regardless of the other person's wishes or needs. I believe Karina would have been perfectly happy to remain in New York playing jazz and childless. It was totally unfair and selfish for Richard to knowingly move her to an area where she would have little to no opportunity to play jazz. He was imposing his own musical preferences upon her and ruining her chance at a successful career. Then he not only carries on affairs with other women while still married, but even leaves proof where he knows Karina can and probably will discover it. She's right, he is a "prick"! 

Once Grace is born Karina then makes sure she doesn't get pregnant again, while pretending to Richard that they're just unable to conceive... She didn't want to be stuck raising five children as he mother had done...

Although it was not fair of Karina to keep the birth control a secret, IMO, Richard deceived her first and foremost by moving her away from the New York jazz scene and then defying his marriage vows by screwing around with other women. Neither of them is without fault, but I believe Richard is much more to blame for the alienation and eventual divorce. 

Have you read this one? If so, what were your thoughts?
Feel free to comment below!

Join us on Monday, June 7th as we review 
Monogamy by Sue Miller


  1. I was forgetting about how Karina didn't want to end up like her mother, with a bunch of children to take care of. I liked how Genova brought their backgrounds/childhood into the story - it allowed for a better understanding of their actions. I ended up feeling more sorry for Richard than I thought possible at first!

    Do you have a favourite Genova? I think I've read them all now except for Inside the OBriens.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I checked first thing this morning and didn't find any other reviews posted yet.

      I think that's one of the things I appreciate most about her writing. Although she is a neuroscientist, she also includes so much more in her characterization than just the challenges presented by the disease.

      I think each one I read becomes my favorite for a bit until I finally decide that there is no one book of hers that I feel is a "favorite" for me. I think I would recommend to readers that they select the one disease they wish to read about most. I feel as if each of her books has been an absolutely excellent read.