Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey
By Perri Knize
(Scribner, $27.50)

Perri Knize was 42 when she became convinced that she should dedicate her life to mastering the piano. It had been some 25 years since she’d last considered a musical vocation and 15 since her last lessons. None of that mattered on the autumn day that she pushed a cassette recording of Chopin waltzes into her car’s tape deck and drove toward a Montana getaway completely enraptured by the pianist’s performance. “This is all I want to do with my life” were the words that filled her head. “They hit,” she says, “with all the force of an inner directive that cannot be ignored.”

The author’s romantic obsession was only just beginning, said Eugenia Zukerman in The Washington Post. For while Knize’s “deeply affecting” memoir begins with that awakening of artistic passion, the feeling soon enough attaches to a particular piano that nearly breaks her heart. After meeting this German Grotrian grand in a New York showroom and nicknaming the instrument “Marlene,” Knize mortgages her home to bring it West, only to find that the piano’s rich, sultry sound had become “a hoarse, broken voice.” Frustrated in her initial attempts to solve the problem, she “becomes as frantic and determined to find the cause as a mother whose child’s illness is deemed undiagnosable.” Though her self-dramatization can seem excessive, Knize “hooks you into her obsession with writing that is lucid yet lyrical.”

Much of the book ends up being an attempt to discern how Marlene’s “soul” came into being, said Mike Kroner in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Knize visits the Austrian forest where the spruce for the soundboard was felled. She introduces us to “the cranky artisans in the Grotrian piano factory” as well as numerous “brilliant, quirky piano players who share her obsession.” Her quest becomes a tribute to the lasting value of mindfulness and expertise, said Emma Brockes in The New York Times. Though at times the metaphorical aspects of the search threaten to overwhelm the actual story, grounded observations carry the biggest moments. The voice of any piano, Knize explains, is in part the product of a series of compromises that occur whenever it’s tuned. “By the end of the story,” when Knize fully appreciates the degree to which the sound she had struggled to re-create was an illusion, her predicament “has the weight of tragedy.”