Karen Robertson dreams of only one thing: becoming a world-class pianist. Not yet graduated from high school, she toils six or seven hours every day over Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in preparation for auditions to major conservatories. Then the Great Earthquake strikes. Karen’s home is gone. Her piano is destroyed. Her beloved teacher is missing. When her father finds work at Arequipa, an isolated tuberculosis sanatorium in rural Marin County, Karen feels her dream slipping away. But hearing a distant piano on the sanatorium campus, Karen meets An Collins, a young woman orphaned by the tuberculosis that killed her mother. An leads Karen to a beautiful Mason grand; and as their long, music-filled days at the piano deepen into friendship, An confides in Karen her dream of becoming a writer and escaping Arequipa. When Karen’s teacher reappears and arranges a performance in San Francisco, Karen contrives to make An’s dream become a reality. But An unintentionally provokes a crisis that changes both women’s lives forever.
Plot: Piano prodigy Karen Robertson is forced to leave San Francisco with her family after the Great Earthquake—however, after a return to the city, her life grows more complicated as she learns to balance her ambition and talent with a desire to be part of the lives of her family and friends. In a poignant side narrative, her parents must struggle with their own demons once they move to Arequipa, a sanitarium where they both try to make a life for themselves—Alexander with his teaching and talent, and Annalie with her depression and loneliness.
Prose/Style: Kennedy's prose is beautifully written and lyrical, the perfect counterpoint to the musical talents of Karen, who is a virtuoso on the piano, yet struggles with day-to-day relationships and realities.
Originality: Arequipa is more than a coming-of-age-tale about a young woman and her desire to fulfill her dreams—it is a passionate exploration of ambition: what is lost, what is gained, and ultimately, how sometimes our paths are manipulated by circumstance and often misfortune. Ultimately, it is a lovely, lyrical period piece that cleverly wends known historical context (San Francisco's Great Earthquake) with an often heartbreaking tale of loneliness and personal sacrifice.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are beautifully written, and the dichotomy between mother and daughter is explored cleverly through both the juxtaposition of their stories and their distance, both physical and emotional, from one another. Karen's passion and talent easily builds empathy from the reader as we see her struggles to develop a co-existing identity as both 'woman' and 'musician' through sacrifice and discipline.
Date Submitted: July 31, 2021