Music must float in the air over Montreal, a city that has nurtured many a lauded performer from the late classical pianist Ellen Ballon to Arcade Fire and Nikki Yanofsky. So it is only natural that music has been the central focus of a number of books by local authors, including most recently Mary Soderstrom’s River Music. In her latest novel, the prolific Soderstrom – author of four books of non-fiction, three story collections, six novels, and a children’s book – explores the life of a woman whose every action is driven by her passion to perform.
It is the thirties in Montreal when, at a tender age, Gloria Foster falls in love with the piano. The thrill of playing, of being carried down the river of music (a phrase repeated too often), quickly becomes the singular focus of everything she does.
Her first piano is a gift from her absent father, a man who is either away working or fighting in a war, and then, after the war, a hospitalized invalid she rarely sees. Her relationship with men vis-à-vis the piano, however, is set for life. Hereafter, the piano will always come first.
As a young woman, Gloria had been told by her neighbour that her lifeline suggested she would have one abiding and great love, and we are led to believe it might be Pierre, who keeps appearing for one night stands. But by the end of River Music, the reader understands that the only thing Gloria has loved all her life is the piano and the music she makes on it. Her eldest child, Frances, sums it up succinctly: “Don’t forget that to make a musical career you’ve got to be so tough that you’d sell your first born to get ahead.”
River Music is a thought-provoking guide to how musical tastes have changed over the decades. From Bach through Debussy to Claude Vivier, who is woven into the story, Gloria takes us on a journey in pursuit of those elusive elements that make music such an integral part of life. As a result, I found myself going to YouTube to hear some of the work described.
To her credit, Soderstrom deftly interweaves Gloria’s determination to succeed with her failure to see the people in her life as anything more than scores to be interpreted and used to further her career. Ultimately, however, the book leaves the reader wanting something more from Gloria, whose greatest asset – her musical talent – is unavailable to us. Perhaps if we could hear her play, we might forgive Gloria her cold heart. mRb