One of the 20th century's most celebrated pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, and his young male student, Nico Kaufmann, had an affair in the late 1930s, fictionalized here in all its regret, secrecy, and music.
Lovers of classical music, especially piano repertoire, will find much to mine in Horowitz’s and Kaufmann’s comments on various compositions. While that may sound a bit dry, the story also packs in plenty of Sturm und Drang ... The shifts in time and lack of quotation marks in the prose reward reading, even while they sometimes confuse. As memory blurs into the present moment, Singer masterfully erodes Kaufmann’s somewhat detached air to reveal a grand passion that never died, or even approached resolution, a passion he’s still trying to work out. Kaufmann’s confession/auto narrative reflects the inevitable sordidness of a concealed love affair. Yet throughout its telling, Singer maintains an elegance and depth that will leave the reader pondering the nature of personal courage and how—or whether—life and maturity can ever bring into harmony art, ambition, and love.
... a wonderful setup for a book ... Unfortunately, The Piano Student presents serious challenges. With no quotation marks and a narration that switches frequently from first to third person, it can be difficult to tell who is speaking. Whether this ongoing confusion derives from the original German or the translation (I suspect it’s the original German), it is a shame. The story is gripping in its newness and historical import, but it wants clarification ... The Piano Student contains a lovely air of mystery and a clear-eyed view of the difference between pianistic workmanship and pianistic greatness.
The novel draws out many themes that resonate in today’s world on the nature of sexual identity and art, especially the relationship between passion and art and suffering and creativity. Nico provides a moving analysis of Horowitz’s struggle ... While the novel presents its themes with sensitivity and restraint, the blending of documentary and fiction doesn’t always work effectively ... Horowitz remains somewhat opaque as a character. The novel’s construction seems contrived in its travelogue structure and the underdeveloped thread about Donati. At its best, however, The Piano Student illuminates the sacrifices artists make for their art. It also, as Nico tells his companion at the end, shows us 'the possibilities' of life.