Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos―grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, as well as humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes. They tell the story of how, ever since entering Russian culture under the westernizing influence of Catherine the Great, piano music has run through the country like blood.
... melodious ... These pages sing like a symphony ... Ms. Roberts puts artistic coherence first, as a writer should ... Ms. Roberts [is] a robust and diligent researcher ... As Ms. Roberts adroitly weaves personal quest with Russian history, vignettes feature splinter communities of Old Believers ... The author quotes widely, from early travelers to the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and, of course, Chekhov, who made his own journey, delightfully recounted, across Siberia to Sakhalin Island ... Throughout her prodigious travels Ms. Roberts emerges as a fine descriptive writer...She understands the crucial role of specificity in a traveler’s prose ... Notwithstanding the occasional cliché and weak phrase, Ms. Roberts’s prose is on the whole a model of style and clarity. She controls the narrative drive as if with a pianist’s foot pedals and modulates the tone between the flats of long motor journeys and the sharps of emotional intensity.
[Roberts'] travels are bold and sociable, and our vicarious pleasure ... Quest-travel books are a rich subgenre, and Roberts is indefatigable. She is serious and never ironic about the quest. She loves pianos and pianists but she also loves the stories they bring to light. And she’s an ace reporter, mixing with locals and officials, tracking rumors. Her informants become pals. She follows their leads through snow squalls and mosquito swarms ... The hunt gives her a mission to push through the hermetic norms of prevailing culture, which mostly obliges her, revealing its secret strength of kindness; her mission and her nature seem fortunately shaped to bring out the best in people ... Roberts reveals herself slowly and is terrific company, our acute, busy, sympathetic and scattered guide. She’s always got several plates spinning — dramatic historic anecdotes, emotive narratives about the piano of the moment, the building it’s in, the neighborhood’s heritage, the parallel adventures of prior literary travelers ... So, it’s hardly a history text, more a series of intriguing chats on the human condition with a charming friend excited to share specifics of what she’s experienced and discovered. By page 100, I’d settled in, sipping vodka as I read happily on about piano lore, foul-weather adventures, gossipy history, a cast mainly of hospitable locals, and ultimately, as in the best travel books, glad for the fine company of the author.
Much of The Lost Pianos of Siberia consists of neat summaries of major events in Russian history ... This is not a book for readers already familiar with Russian history. Nor is it a book for music buffs. There are many pianos, but there is remarkably little about music. Roberts’s descriptions of landscapes are as lovely as fine embroidery, but when she searches for words to describe music she comes up empty ... Like Lenin’s corpse, a very old piano will have to be reconstituted from new materials if it is to persevere. But Roberts loves a relic ... This is the magical approach to objects that prevails in house museums, which rely on possessions as a kind of spirit medium. But a reader cannot finger the keys of these instruments or peep inside at the strings and hammers, touching the piano and communing with its former owner. A reader is reading, and words will have to do.