Excerpt from Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel of the O.K. Corral

by Mary Doria Russell

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell X
Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 592 pages

    Feb 2016, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Darcie R.J. Abbene
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Print Excerpt

For the Sake of Helen: Princess, Prize
Since I Went Away and Left my Native Land

"You're Russian."

She looked over her shoulder.

He was thin-faced and bent a little to his left, but tall enough to spy on her over the swing doors that separated the Cosmopolitan Hotel's busy lobby from its rarely used music room.

She swiveled on the piano stool and fixed him with a bleary, red-rimmed, adolescent glare. "I'm as American as you are!"

A slow smile. Leaning on a silver-topped walking stick, he stepped inside. "Not 'Russian,' " he said, enunciating more clearly. "You're rushing."

Everything about the man seemed slightly askew. His smile, his posture, his demeanor. With an unhurried stateliness he came closer and handed her a handkerchief.

"Blow your nose, sugar."

Resentfully, she did as she was told. Annoyed to be treated like a child. Aware that wiping snot on her sleeve was not a sophisticated alternative.

Without introducing himself, he placed his hat and walking stick on a small walnut table and sat in the wingback chair beside the piano, casually crossing one knobby knee over the other. "Right hand only. And slow down.

" "Are you a piano teacher?"

"Never mind what I am." He took a slim dark cigar from a flat silver case and lit it with a few short, shallow puffs. "First eight measures," he said through a cough. "Right hand. Slowly."

"It's useless! I could play this last year, but I've forgotten everything. The music just looks like dots again!"

Cigar at a jaunty angle, he leaned on his left elbow and settled into the upholstery. "Just play," he said, lifting his chin toward the piano.

She got a note wrong in the second measure and banged on the keys. "You see? I told you!"

"Start over," he said patiently. Staht ovah, it sounded like. "Give your hands a chance to remember."

Six more attempts. Finally she got through eight measures with just a single muttered "Drat," in the middle. Eyes bright, expecting praise, she turned toward him with juvenile elation.

"Better," he acknowledged neutrally. "Now the left hand. Slowly."

She applied herself to the bass clef. He let her try three times, then placed his little cigar in a heavy crystal ashtray on the inlaid table. Sliding forward on the silk upholstery to the edge of his chair, he paused before getting to his feet. Despite his care, the movement set off an ugly coughing fit and he pulled a stack of clean cotton handkerchiefs from a pocket, selecting one to hold over his mouth. The others were returned from whence they came. When the episode passed, he put the used cloth in a different pocket. Each motion was practiced and nonchalant.

"Let me show you something."

She got out of his way. He sat at the piano and played six notes, right hand only. "That's the refrain. You'll hear those six notes again and again, but Mr. Schumann has varied what follows."

He demonstrated, playing plainly. Quarter notes, without pedal or dynamics. She tried to listen, but she was distracted by his hands. They were elegant but seemed too big for the rest of him. The prominent wrist bones were circled by fraying shirt cuffs so loose, she wondered if he was wearing a slightly larger and more prosperous man's castoffs. The clothing was quietly tasteful but certainly not new.

"Y'see?" he asked. "No need to rush . . . And there are those six notes again . . ."

He played it all the way through explaining the structure and the harmonies. His voice was soft and his diction blurred, but his language was precise. The music had her attention now, becoming clearer with his comments. Then he paused and gathered himself, so self-contained she dared not speak for fear of breaking his concentration.

From Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. Copyright 2015 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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