Artistically speaking, Eva Hoffman Hoffman’s background has come in handy.
When she was 14, growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine led Hoffman and her family to move to Canada. After completing high school, Hoffman won a scholarship to Rice University in Texas where she studied English literature.
Later, though, she attended the Yale School of Music and Harvard University where she earned a Ph.D. in literature. She worked for The New York Times as its literary critic.
Utilizing her musical training, Hoffman has produced a compelling account of the life of a concert pianist, Isabel Merton, in her latest novel, “Appassionata.”
A well-known artist, Merton is on a tour that is scheduled to take her throughout Europe, beginning in Paris. Her seatmate on the transatlantic flight, Louis McElvoy, who “apparently works at the State Department,” recognizes her and says he wants to attend her performance in Paris. Also, he asks to come backstage afterwards and she agrees.
This chance encounter leads Merton to meet several other acquaintances of McElvoy who keep turning up as the tour proceeds to other European capitals. Descriptions of Merton’s concerts demonstrate Hoffman’s musical knowledge. The accounts alternate with flashback scenes of Merton’s training with a gifted but eccentric music teacher named Wolfe whose posthumously published journal she reads as travels from place to place.
Merton has a continuing but enigmatic relationship with Peter, a man she lives with when she is in New York, and with whom she has occasional phone conversations during her tour. This association doesn’t stop her from establishing a new connection with Anzor Islikhanov whose path keeps crossing hers throughout Europe. He is a political exile from Chechnya whose hostility for the Russians knows no bounds. In some unexplained fashion, Anzor and his associates are involved with an explosion in a Barcelona concert hall where Merton is performing.
Angry with Anzor and feeling betrayed by him, Merton abandons her tour and disappears in Marseilles. Unable to practice, she watches the news and, at one point, thinks she sees Anzor in a clip on fighting in Chechnya. Finally, she is tracked down by her agent and, through him, by Peter who asks her to come home. Instead, she goes to California but, eventually, returns to her music and to Peter.
Merton’s ardor for music and her infatuation with Anzor make for a turbulent tale that grips the reader’s attention. Hoffman’s musical training, her sensitivity to current events, and her own traumatic life experiences combine to make for a distinctive novel that is fully worthy of our attention.
(Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)