THOUGH THE PLOT of David Leavitt's The Page Turner spans two continents, the scope of its story could hardly be described as worldly. Instead, like the touring concert pianist who encircles the globe but sees little more than the the insides of airports, music halls, and hotels, the narrative of Leavitt's seventh novel rarely escapes the confines of its characters' private concerns. San Francisco, New York, and even the author's current residence, Rome, all serve as potentially distracting settings, but the American-born Leavitt, who is best known for his titles The Lost Language of Cranes and the collection of short stories, Arkansas, keeps his eye tightly focused on a small circle of characters linked by social and sexual intrigue.
At the center of this ring is Paul Porterfield, an 18-year-old Californian with considerable pianistic talent. A dreamer who lusts after respect and recognition, Paul leaps at the chance to turn pages for his hero, concert pianist Richard Kennington, during a concert. For years, the youth has collected every available scrap of information on the middle-aged musician, yet Kennington's inner workings--the artistic insights that made the man a prodigy in his early teens--remain beyond Paul's grasp. Queries about Shubert, Tchaikovsky, and musical technique tumble from the boy's mouth as he eagerly shakes the master's hand.
Kennington, despite himself, is not only flattered by the young man's attentions; he's also aroused. So when Paul finds him during an Italian tour, the older man makes the most of Paul's infatuation: He seduces him. Leavitt, who up until now has given us no indication that Paul's interest is sexual, tucks the two into bed without explanation. The teen, who seems to have neither experience nor, oddly, emotional baggage when it comes to homosexuality, complies.
This Roman holiday, however, can only end badly. Kennington fails to mention his longtime lover in New York City, and the situation only grows more complex when Paul's freshly divorced mother mistakes Kennington's affections for her son as advances toward her. Without explanation or remorse, Kennington abandons the tryst and flies home.
Leavitt's subject here is spurned desire, and the obsession that inevitably ensues. Paul, down but not out, moves to New York and trails his former lover stateside. Circumstances and half-truths keep the pair one-step removed, linked only by mutual lovers, acquaintances, and ambitions. Young men dream dreams only to see them crushed, while the old lick their wounds. It's French farce without the humor. Leavitt seldom delves deep into the emotional texture of his characters, but there's subtle action and deceit aplenty. But to the extent that the author neglects to resolve his romance, it perhaps proves that neither an author nor a concert master can play upon an untuned universe.