'Every Note Played' Means Well But Fails to Read Well

3 Stars

Every Note Played Cover
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Richard is a famous concert pianist who has just been diagnosed with ALS. “Every Note Played,” Genova’s fifth book, describes Richard’s life after he moves back home so his ex-wife, Karina, can care for him. The writing style and character development leave much to be desired, but Genova’s career as a neuroscientist and her personal relationships with those who suffer from ALS add detail to the experience of the disease and its effects in both an informative and heartbreaking way.

Genova has a bad habit of ending her chapters with overused or overly dramatic metaphors. The prologue ends as Richard stands to hear his applause at a performance: “He is loved by everyone. And no one.” The second chapter concludes with an extended metaphor comparing Richard to a BMW running low on gas. The narrator posits, “How many miles does he have left?” The list goes on, and these worn out expressions detract from the emotional poignancy the novel’s subject so desperately calls for.

Unfortunately, Genova sprinkles her clichés not just at the end of her chapters, but throughout the novel. “Location matters in destiny as much as it matters in real estate,” which is why Karina claims she’s been miserable for years in Boston, a city that lacks a jazz scene. But Karina thinks she’s strong because “You can take the girl out of Poland, but you can’t take the Poland out of the girl.” These tired lines take the spotlight off of the main plotline and their shoddiness makes any backstory, side plot or minor character development seem cheap and unfulfilling.

Furthermore, Genova refuses to follow the golden rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Perhaps part of this problem stems from her decision to write in a third-person omniscient perspective: The reader gains access to all the characters’ thoughts, but they are accompanied by “Richard thought,” and “Karina felt.” Character development does not simply evolve throughout the narrative; Geneva walks her readers through several rounds of her characters’ thoughts. For instance, instead of having Richard and Karina apologize for their respective parts in the divorce in a heartfelt scene, Genova dedicates countless paragraphs to Richard explicitly thinking about his regrets and the ways he can apologize. Each beautiful moment is preceded by many agonizing ones in which the characters reiterate their hopes, fears, and regrets. This repetition hampers the effects of the touching scenes, watering down moments that should shine.

But ultimately “Every Note Played” has a purpose. The novel is informative and details the many phases of Richard’s ALS. Genova knows what could and will happen, as well as what sort of medical treatment is necessary for each scenario. She paints a picture of ALS that is eye-opening and honest.Talking is laborious for Richard, and his legs are paralyzed. Many people have a misunderstanding of how fast the paralysis spreads and how long most people with ALS live after they are diagnosed, especially given popular culture’s representation of Stephen Hawking (who recently passed away 55 years after he was diagnosed). He surpassed his physicians expectations by many decades and had access to some of the best equipment available.


But this book reveals a side of ALS that is not often seen. “Every Note Played” depicts the frustrations that accompany a lack of mobility and an inability to communicate efficiently, coupled with the knowledge that the condition will never improve. Richard “studies his hands that will never again look familiar to him, fingers that used to carry exquisite strength and agility, that a year and a half ago played eighty-seven pages of Brahms I without error.”

In terms of artistry, “Every Note Played” falls flat. The character development is lacking and the prose relies on tiresome phrases that don’t flow with the rest of the novel. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spot on the bookshelf for Genova’s newest novel. When detailing the experience of ALS, Genova’s book aims to generate more awareness and funding for this condition, as stated in the acknowledgements. She does this through her description of Richard’s experience with the disease, which is educated by her knowledge as a neuroscientist and her relationships with people who have been diagnosed with ALS.

—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew


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