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(Novels for Students)

Published in 1993, Body and Soul was the long-awaited first novel of the acclaimed author Frank Conroy. He had originally come into the literary spotlight with his autobiography Stop-Time, published a quarter of a century earlier. Critics and fans alike had eagerly awaited a book of stature equal to Stop-Time and were ecstatic to hear that at long last Conroy would be published again. Body and Soul was released with much hype and fanfare, yet the reaction from critics was mixed. Many were disappointed that Body and Soul, while very similar in subject matter to Stop-Time, was not as compelling as the autobiography had been. Others, however, were enthralled by the epic and weaving plot line, numerous and diverse characters, and rapid page-turning pace. Despite the mixed critical reaction, the book became a national best-seller and brought Conroy even more recognition. It even became a Delta Fiction Publisher’s Choice book when it was reprinted in trade paperback format.

Body and Soul is the exploration of the life of a child prodigy, raised in poverty and neglect but achieving fame and fortune through his incredible musical gift. The saga chronicles his struggles with himself, his environment, his family, his ambition, and ultimately with the talent that has given him everything. It is, as Conroy himself put it, “a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot.” Body and Soul encompasses not only the hopes and dreams of its protagonist, but of Frank Conroy fans as well.

Part 1 Summary

(Novels for Students)

The novel begins when Claude Rawlings is six years old, living in a basement apartment on Third Avenue in New York City. While his mother, Emma, drives a cab, Claude amuses himself on an old, out-of-tune piano in his dark, little room. He occasionally attends school, but sits in the back of class and goes virtually unnoticed. Fascinated by Weisfeld’s Music Store, he ventures in one day. Aaron Weisfeld shows him how to read sheet music and gives him a beginner’s piano book to learn. Claude devours the book in record time, mastering the lessons with very little difficulty. Weisfeld is astonished by the boy’s talent and agrees to be his teacher.

Claude also chances to meet Al Johnson, a maintenance worker in an apartment building. Through Al, Claude earns the money to pay for his piano lessons. In the meantime, his mother becomes involved in the Communist Party, using her cab to chauffeur leaders of the movement. Detected by the FBI, she is pressured into testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Traumatized by the experience, she slowly begins to lose her grip on reality.

Weisfeld arranges for Claude to practice on a concert grand piano in the home of the aged Maestro Kimmel. There the servants introduce him to gourmet dining, table manners, and strengthening exercises. When the Maestro passes away, he leaves Claude the Bechstein piano in his will and enough money in trust to pay for his music lessons. The piano is moved to the basement of Weisfeld’s music store where Claude sets up a work studio. In the little time that Claude spends away from music, he goes to the movies and is enthralled with the glitzy, romantic adventures that he believes represent the world outside his narrow existence.

Claude then begins to study with a variety of music teachers, each one instructing him about a different technique or school of music. One of these teachers is the world-renowned Mozart expert Fredericks, who becomes a lifelong friend and mentor to Claude. As Claude moves into his teen years, he is hired to play at parties for the Fisks, a prominent, wealthy couple with two children, Catherine and Peter. Claude is immediately enraptured by Catherine, but she treats him with derision.

At the movie theater, Claude happens to find the notebook of Ivan Andrews, who attends The Bentley, a very exclusive private high school. Claude inquires about admission, and when they learn of his musical genius, he is admitted to the school with a...

(The entire section is 1,552 words.)