Classical music lies at the heart of Bradford Morrow’s intriguing quest novel: a hunt on two continents for a mysterious piano sonata — torn up into three sections and hidden at the onset of World War II. Sixty years later, in New York, it is only by chance that Meta Taverner comes into possession of one of the sonata’s movements. The other two are still missing.
Meta, a budding musicologist, and her professor/mentor attempt to uncover the sonata’s provenance. It’s quite old, of that they’re fairly certain. But who wrote it? Too skillful to be an imitator, yet too rough to be one of the giants — they nonetheless detect a trace of Mozart, a line of Hayden, and a prefiguring of Beethoven. Their forensic analysis of musical DNA is like the best of CSI.
To figure out exactly what they have in front of them, Meta and Professor Mandelbaum need the other two movements. The need becomes a driving obsession for Meta, who decides to pack herself off to Prague where the sonata first came to light and was later divided into its three pieces. There she meets a group of characters — some who prove helpful and others who attempt to thwart her efforts.
Underlying the mystery of the sonata are more philosophical considerations that enrich the storyline — the role of music in our lives, the remarkable power it has over us, and finally, the rights of ownership.
Sonata takes place in two time frames — World War II and the year 2000 — and, like many dual-period novels, the earlier period is the more engaging. That’s not to say that the contemporary story is dull but that Meta, et al. lack the heft and urgency of the war-time characters, who are faced with life-threatening decisions. The existential threat back then was dire; not so, 60 years later.
In what seems like an attempt to ratchet up suspense for Meta’s plotline, the author tosses in a couple of unsavory characters, whom we are clearly meant to dislike. It’s an obvious ploy and a bit melodramatic, as is the addition of a romantic interest — which feels gratuitous and lacks spark.
That said, the novel’s architecture is intriguing. Morrow has structured it along the lines of a sonata — three parts, with themes and motifs that begin, develop, then circle back to the opening. (Trivial pursuit: locate the dual snow scenes in one of the sections.) As in any quest story, the overarching theme is a personal one: Meta’s search for wholeness — her need to assemble and mend the torn pieces of her own life.
All in all, The Prague Sonata is a pleasurable read. Oh, and after you finish, you’ll most certainly want to visit Prague, a beautiful old European city lovingly depicted by Morrow.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.