The Prague Sonata
Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 2017
As a young woman living in Prague at the start of the second world war, Otylie watches her Jewish husband disappear into the Czech resistance and reluctantly follows his wish for her to escape the inevitable tyranny of the Third Reich. But before fleeing to America by way of London, she decides to split up her most prized possession, an unattributed 18th-century manuscript of a three-part sonata her father had left her. Otylie’s hope is that by splitting up the three movements, there would be more of a chance for its survival and ultimate reunification. She gives one movement to a close friend, another to her certainly doomed husband, and keeps the other for herself. The sonata as a whole has only been performed once, before the Nazis marched in, and the chance for it to ever be made whole again seems as unlikely as Prague’s to ever be back in the hands of its own citizens.
A half a century later, and a half way around the world, another young woman, Meta, a New York City-based pianist and aspiring musicologist, crosses paths with Otylie’s now elderly friend Irene, who entrusts Meta with the sonata’s second movement just as Otylie had entrusted it to her at the start of World War II. When Irene dies shortly after, Meta realizes the potential scholarly value of the work and heads to Prague to find the other two movements with the goal of reuniting the memory of the young Czech couple who once held the missing parts.
In Prague, Meta stumbles onto a hot trail leading to the lost manuscripts, while at the same time she discovers a romantic interest that reinvents her personal life just as the sonata reinvigorated her career. But just as everything seems to be falling perfectly in place, another, more sinister musicologist moves in, an ex-Soviet apparatchik whose interest in the sonata has more to do with money than memory.
The novel is neatly divided into three parts to correspond with the search for the three movements. It is also nearly divided in half in the amount of attention paid to the present-day story of Meta’s ups and downs navigating modern Prague and Otylie’s tragic history leaving her homeland. The strongest chapters follow Otylie as she struggles to move on from the heroic fate of her husband and find strength in communities of fellow Czech refugees in surprising places like Texas and Nebraska. In the end, one woman heads back to the old country to solve a riddle from the past while another comes to America in search of a second chance at an unknown future. The power of art transcends wars and generations to bind them together, and for fans of historical romances, Morrow’s intricate novel will likewise hit all the right notes.