Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier (Random House, 2001) is one of those books that is sui generis, perfect in its own kind. Like Henry Beston's The Outermost House, Samuel Chamberlain's Clementine in the Kitchen, and Stephen Bodio's Querencia, Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is so well done that it affords delight beyond all expectation. I had never heard of this book until a friend recommended it, but I liked it so much that after I finished reading it I immediately read it again.
Carhart's plot is nearly non-existent: he and his wife and daughter are living in Paris, and he notices a shop with a window display of tools for tuning a piano. He thinks it might be interesting to start playing again, so he enters the shop with the idea of buying a used piano, only to be told, not just then but on a number of subsequent occasions, that there are no pianos for sale. The French do things differently, he eventually figures out, and, indeed, he learns at last from a friend that he has to be recommended by a former client of the shop to even be considered as a suitable customer for one of their many, many pianos discreetly assembled in a back room.
Fortunately, Carhart speaks fluent French and becomes friends with the young owner Luc, who eventually lets him see and try out the piano Luc has chosen for him. Carhart loves it, and in this instance the course of true love really does run smooth. He finds a teacher who is willing to take on an adult, and we learn more about what really counts in music. At intervals, Luc discovers another "dream piano," one that is extraordinary or will become so under his loving care.
The more lore Carhart learns from Luc about pianos, the more we learn about Luc and his seemingly inexhaustible passion for pianos in their almost infinite variety. I'd say that all of this is charming, but that word has become almost meaningless. I shall say only that The Piano Shop on the Left Bank makes you wish that you too were fluent in French, living in Paris, and friends with Thad Carhart and Luc. Oh, and that you could also play the piano so Luc could pick out the perfect one for you as well. This book, as the subtitle indicates, is about rediscovering passion, and thus it is entirely fitting that the last line has Luc justifying his own, "You can never have too many dream pianos."