I would have liked to give this book a 3.5 star rating. It wasn't solidly good (which I require for 4 stars), but it wasn't just mediocre, there were a few good passages and it was certainly entertaining enough.
Renne was an interesting narrator; he is removed from society and despite being mid-30s has the voice of a 60-something. He spends lots of time thinking about people and interactions and mourning his inability to create relationships since losing his ability to play, but he also enjoys his solitary life. We have completely trite: "I'll be thirty-six years old this spring, which is young for a retired concert soloist but old for a virgin." coupled with: "As a rule, I try to avoid talking wiht anyone about the collapse of society. My own view is that apathy is an acceptable, if not admirable, stance because it actively reduces frustration and despair and to that extent makes the world a better place."
I found Renne's tone to be appealing most of the time. The story was compelling and quick-enough paced to keep the reader entertained and moving throughout.
I was a bit annoyed that Salzman felt he had to bring Nazi Germany into the book. Certainly von Kempen's career (and its termination) is relevant to Renne's life, but it felt like a cheap shot added to the mix of other things discussed.
The main focus is on happiness and the pursuit thereof. As we watch the trial unfold and see Renne empathize with Phillip, the reader is treated to several great passages. When Renne says,"Enlightenment, salvation, finding your 'true self'--it all sounded too grandiose, hopeful and vague at the same time to be believed." the irony of course is that Renne looks for just that in music and until the end of the novel is unable to see that he has spent half of his life waiting for this enlightenment (that he once had) to return. I really thought that the parallels between Renne's musical quest and Phillips Zen training were remarkable.
Similarly, in the description of Zen teaching we have "Most people resent the fact that they cannot always do what they like. Some days even the most privileged of us feel we have no freedom at all." This is so absolutely true and is a perfect description of the human condition. We are always looking for more and better and different; feeling satisfied or accepting a moment is difficult for all of us. The best antidote that I know of is attributed to Gandhi here as "'Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment.'"
While following Renne on his journey to rediscovering his self, we hear a lot about "paying attention and feeling more involved in your ordinary life, with all its limitations and shortcomings." Finally, Renne argues that "the larger picture is overrated." Ironically enough, this replicates his father's earlier answer to the question about the difference between optimist and pessimists: "when somebody gets born, it's like he got pushed off the top of one of those ski-slope places. There's only one way to go, and that's down. Optimists are the people who face backwards; they're looking up, but trying real hard not to notice that up is getting farther away. Pessimist are facing the direction they're going.' 'So what are you, Dad?' 'I'm not looking.'"
Finally, there was a line in the trial about understanding insanity that I simply liked: "The line between an irresistible impulse and an impulse not resisted is probably no sharper than the line between twilight and dusk." I don't know that resisting impulses is easy for any of us, and certainly after succumbing to any impulse we like to think that it was irresistible, rather than not resisted.
Overall, it is a good read, but nothing spectacular.