Book Review: A Minor, by Margaret Philbrick

Margaret Philbrick’s recently-released book, A Minor, provides an intimate view into the life of a prodigious classical musician in love with an older, married woman (his piano teacher) who is suffering from early-onset dementia. Margaret’s knowledge of music and her ability to authentically voice the emotions of an angst-ridden teenaged boy are impressive, as is the way she has knit the viewpoint of a variety of players into her novel. Her character-types are wide ranging, and she handles each masterfully.

The protagonist of A Minor is the young Clive Serkin, a soon-to-be world renown pianist of the highest magnitude. Clive, however, is not just a musician: he is a teenaged boy in love with his piano teacher, Clare Cardiff, who just so happens to be old enough to be his mother, married, and falling victim to dementia. If that weren’t complicated enough, there are also issues such as faith, coming of age, familial relationships, an abusive marriage, and mental health to contend with. The complexities are many, and the reader may find herself wondering just how Margaret will manage to tie it all together at the end.

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but I will say that I was pleased that Margaret did not fall into the trap of a tidy ending. The reader will be satisfied by A Minor’s conclusion, that’s true, but she will also be left contemplating the questions Margaret raises throughout the book.

Some of these questions will pertain to faith as Margaret weaves both Judaism and Christianity into what I expected to be a “Christian only” novel. Each religion is handled with love, respect, and understanding, and adds depth to each character and causes the reader to reflect on how our faith is, should be, or could be applied to our daily lives and decision-making processes.

Also adding depth is the way Margaret has used a work of fiction to bring such an important topic to light: music therapy.

I am a proponent of medication where medication is needed, but also an advocate for exploring complimentary or alternative modes of therapeutic intervention. I have seldom seen this subject be so integral to a book’s plot (treating dementia), and the through line of music’s importance to our emotional well-being is, I think, unique.

That said, one does not need to be a classical musician, or even a lover of music, to appreciate this book; a reader can find other means by which to buy into the young protagonist. But, if you are a lover of classical music, then you’re in luck—the novel comes with a soundtrack! It’s well worth a listen, and will help you appreciate Margaret’s fine work all the more.

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