Mark Salzman is a respected author whose highly acclaimed work IRON AND SILK appeared in 1986. In THE SOLOIST, Salzman relates the story of a child prodigy, Reinhart “Renne” Sundheimer, who had to give up being a concert cellist before he was twenty years old. When he reaches his mid-thirties, Sundheimer has had to settle for being a teacher of the cello at a university in Los Angeles. As the narrator of the novel, Sundheimer details what it was like to be a child prodigy. He had first showed musical talent when he was merely three years old. By the time he was nine years old, his mother had left his father and taken her young son to Germany to sturdy with the brilliant—but elderly—Johannes von Kempen. Sundheimer’s entire life became consumed with practicing and performing the cello. His domineering mother set a course for her gifted son that was to make him one of the great cellists of his time. He enjoyed performing, but Sundheimer was frustrated by having to lead such a single-minded and isolated life. Before he was twenty, a hearing problem that made any variation in pitch distract him forced Sundheimer to retire as a concert cellist.
In Los Angeles, he leads a quiet life. Seeing himself as a failed musician, Sundheimer wrestles with how to find inner peace. His life is changed when he has to serve as a juror in a trial concerning the murder of a Buddhist monk by one of his students. The jurors must determine whether the student was sane or insane at the time of the murder. During his time as a juror, Sundheimer has a brief affair with one of the female jurors. At about this same time, he had agreed to teach a young Korean boy, who in all likelihood is a child prodigy.
Salzman weaves all of these various plot twists together to make a revealing and suspenseful novel. At the core of THE SOLOIST is Sundheimer’s quest for wholeness, his quest for purpose. The novel seems to raise more questions that it satisfactorily answers, but for any reader intrigued by what it means to be an artist—and whether a true artist needs to detach himself from everyday life in order to produce his art—then THE SOLOIST will be a thoroughly enlightening reading experience.