Although I’m not generally a non-fiction reader, Robin Meloy Goldsby’s Piano Girl–more a collection of snapshots than straight up memoir–is a bright and fascinating peek into the life of a professional piano player. Beginning with Goldby’s teenage introduction to the biz–via a job in a bar on Nantucket, where Goldsby was paid in a mixture of food, cash, and advice–we skate through her time playing venues as diverse as lounges, high end hotels, and roadside motor inns.
Some of Piano Girl’s stories are sweet, such as Goldsby’s time connecting with her unborn daughter while experimenting with her own compositions in a cozy lounge setting; others are outright disturbing, as with her frighteningly detailed sketch of the time she was stalked to and from her job at a ritzy hotel in New York. Despite the occasional anecdote worthy of an early I Love Lucy (abandoning her post at the piano to Heimlich an elderly patron without teeth), Goldsby’s narrative never slips into the macabre or ridiculous.
Goldsby’s prose is rich and vivid (particularly for a collection of such short stories), but her true strength is character work. Even the most mundane seeming figures are lively and well-drawn, while the more, er, unique never cross the line from light and amusing into caricature or the grotesque. Nor is Goldsby a name-dropper; her writing about a friend and restroom attendant running a glamorous boutique out of the disabled stall in a well-to-do hotel is just as detailed as those portions about her associations with several big names (including the beloved “Mister” Fred Rogers), if not more so. But while the middle of Goldsby’s narrative is consumed with philosophical musings, the latter third of the book segues into a cohesive story, carrying us through a second courtship, marriage, and kids (Goldsby’s first marriage is mentioned in a fleeting, two-story kind of way), to a happily ever after touring castles in Europe.
Not all of the stories are gems, though. In places, particularly in the middle of the book, Goldsby loses her sense of plot, giving into an already strong tendency to wax poetic about the piano, falling into long, rambling ruminations about music more at home in a collection of essays. Here, her language stalls, too, stumbling into a pedestrian rhythm not quite in tune (pun intended) with the rest of the book. Other stories are a little too “dear readerish,” with Goldsby’s voice overshadowing the funnier aspects of an event (as in the Heimlich story mentioned above). Yet even as she missteps, the voice of the book is open, friendly, and honest, inviting the reader in for a cup of hot chocolate and a chat, and it’s hard to be frustrated with the book’s shortcomings for long.
One of the reasons I don’t read non-fiction, and memoir in particular, is because it’s so easy for a memoirist to slip into flights of ego and self-praise. At no point, though, does Goldsby toot her own horn; the book is as much as list of her insecurities as it is her triumphs, and the candor therein is immediately captivating. Better still is Goldsby’s refreshing lack of perfectionism. Though clearly a skilled pianist, she focuses more on the joy of music, piano, and people than she does performance, making the music world more accessible, and less frightening to the uninitiated.
Open-hearted and easy to settle into, Piano Girl isn’t, on the surface, a profound book. And yet, there is such a wealth of life tucked away in the pages, life in motion, and emotion, that as a whole, the book does take on a kind of profundity, like a road map or cheat sheet on how, at bottom, we’re all human, and that we all deserve a good laugh.