“If I had known you were coming I could have at least stocked up on burritos,” Miss Wilma tells her prodigal daughter, Sarah, who’s just mysteriously arrived from Santa Fe, 10-year-old daughter in tow.
It’s a rather odd greeting, considering that the older woman has been all but estranged from her own offspring for the past decade.
But Wilma is a study in Southern gentility — naturally, she doesn’t want to cause a scene.
And so begins a very strange week for the widow, who has lived a heretofore-placid life in the small, fictitious North Carolina town of Swan’s Knob. But once Sarah arrives, things don’t long remain quiet for Wilma, the titular musician in Lynn York’s fiction debut, the murder mystery The Piano Teacher (Plume, 2004).
As Southern narratives go, The Piano Teacher flows with the ease and comfort of Jan Karon’s Mitford series (modeled after life in Blowing Rock). And York’s characters feel as familiar as those crafted by late, master Southern storyteller Eudora Welty.
But don’t plan on a sleepy-small-town read: Piano Teacher, despite its laid-back setting, is a page-turner. Get this — there’s suspense. The plot thickens, and the bad guy almost gets away.
More unpredictably, the story line unfolds from a merely chatty read into an impulsive (if PG-rated) whodunit. York manages to sneak up on her readers, offering the frumpy matron as a decoy, and then pulling out the big guns, so to speak.
Things start to heat up after Sarah is followed into Swan’s Knob by Harper, her jazz-musician husband who’s got a talent for attracting trouble. In fact, Harper literally drives trouble straight into town in the form of hitchhiker Jonah Branch, who is quickly picked up for the murder of a local police officer.
York’s main strength, though, is not in fashioning plot, but in her ability to create characters as eccentric — and, alas, as sometimes cliched — as only small-town residents can be. Take, for instance, Lily, the local busybody — “I was only saying by way of protecting you and your reputation that you have no business having that kind of visitor on your front porch” — and Miss Wilma’s determined suitor, the eminently eligible Roy Swan.
Ultimately, the novel’s most interesting relationship is the one York draws between mother and daughter, proving that if distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, well, there’s always adversity.
Battle of the matriarchs: The Piano Teacher versus the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
How does Lynn York’s The Piano Teacher measure up to the Rebecca Wells’ novel (and popular ensemble film) Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? Here’s Xpress‘ take.
• The Allegation: Both The Piano Teacher and Ya-Ya feature strong matriarchs, maladjusted offspring and edgy flashbacks. And both are steeped in the South — though Ya-Ya takes place mainly in Louisiana, whereas York’s book is set in North Carolina. The major theme in both novels is the reconciliation between contentious mothers and daughters, and the cross-generational understandings the respective characters must reach.
• The Plain Truth: Murder notwithstanding, The Piano Teacher is a lighter read, whereas Ya-Ya is more involved, more gut-wrenching. Interestingly, the men in Piano Teacher are far more problematic and in the forefront, offering action and chaos, while Ya-Ya relegates its guys to the backseat, keeping the focus on the book’s women.
• The Death Match: If the two mothers —Piano‘s Wilma and Ya-Ya‘s Vivi — duked it out, I’d put my money on the piano teacher. Sure, Vivi scores points for insult-tossing, hair-pulling and Olympic-level cattiness. Yet when it comes down to it, Wilma is craftier, operating with a musician’s precision and insight: She smartly carries a hefty handbag at all times, and isn’t above employing a mean kick where and when it counts.
[Reach A&E reporter Alli Marshall at email@example.com.]
Lynn York gives a free reading from The Piano Teacher at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 27.