(My apologies this isn’t available in the US, not even on Kindle, though maybe there’s an audiobook? That’s never happened to me before!)
I’ve struggled a bit with my review writing since about November last year, letting them slide just a little too long after I’ve finished the books and then letting my perfectionism slow me down once I do finally get around to writing. I get caught up, and then BAM! I’m four reviews behind again. That’s no place to be with a book like Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom, a book that requires the worst type of review to write: indifferent.
Alice began playing piano at a very young age, taking lessons from her mother, but with her father’s mental health and finances deteriorating, her mother sends her from their rural Australia home to boarding school in England. Alice desperately misses her mother and Australia, but she continues to excel at the piano. After a year on scholarship at the Royal College of Music and a summer festival at Oxford, Alice is ready to finally return to her family in Australia and begin her career as a concert pianist. Tragedy strikes, leaving Alice vulnerable and numb, so when Edward, an odd professor of economics at Oxford, proposes a second time, she accepts, believing this her best chance for happiness and for a career as a performer. However, nothing turns out as she expected, and years later, she looks back with regret at what her life could have been.
Though I did enjoy the sections about music, and appreciated that they were written by someone who clearly knows both music in general and piano in specific (Zoë Morrison has a degree in piano performance and obviously knows her shit), the rest never came together. It was so repetitive and — worse, something I really really hate — chopped up into short chapters that jumped back and forth in time. That structure wasn’t necessary and only annoyed instead of enhancing. Some of the book was beautifully written, particularly Alice’s childhood and education in Part I and also in much of Part II, when she starts working with a younger pianist to help her prepare for a concert, but it was also maddeningly disjointed and inconsistent, especially in Part III where — out of nowhere — it turned into a rom-com! I wish I were joking.
But the biggest problem for me was how Morrison relegated her protagonist’s best actions and successes to a brief blurb in an epilogue. Alice suffers through a terrible marriage to a horrible man, and she’s so defeated by him that she can’t ask anyone for help, even after he’s gone, yet Morrison never gives her the opportunity to exert her agency during the actual story. After a lifetime of suffering and frustration, Alice earned the opportunity to shine. Instead, just as she’s about to break away from everything holding her back, the story is suddenly over. No catharsis, no emotional release. Just “The End”. I’ll never understand why novelists move crucial action offstage. It’s a copout, and it’s poor storytelling.