July 2009

Music Novels, Revisited

July 31, 2009 14:54


“Summer in full leaf and flower thickened sounds, complicated the wind, adding infinite sighings and slurrings. A beehive was like a tiny orchestra hall, the hidden musicians uniting in a humming, sizzling, endlessly varying chord that transferred swiftly to the music Rose was writing. New sounds woke up old sounds, her earliest melodies and rhythms, which told of her own journey. She had somehow gone back to her childhood, to the initial thrill of sound.”


This is an excerpt from the novel, The Rose Variations, by poet and playwright Marisha Chamberlain, which I recently read and enjoyed. Before recommending this novel to a group of string musicians and classical music lovers, however, I suppose I should offer a caveat. This is not a music purist’s “music novel” in the vein of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a cellist and the front cover shows a woman transporting a cello via bicycle. It’s more a story about Rose MacGregor, fresh out of graduate school, who tries to make her way as a single woman in the in the 1970’s, in the male-dominated world of composing and university politics.

A subgenre called “women’s fiction” differentiates itself from mainstream and literary fiction in that it’s generally as much about the character’s journey as it is the plot. Things don’t blow up, except emotionally. People don’t have to die, or be chased, or live in existential misery till the story’s even more existentially miserable conclusion. I’m a sucker for engrossing women’s fiction that’s evocative, romantic without being romance-y, with delicious prose hovering between literary and commercial. The Rose Variations fits the bill here.

It’s interesting how I can forgive a book and its author for not getting deep enough into the musical detail of a music novel, so long as the writing is strong, authentic, and the protagonist is sympathetic. The latter is particularly important to me. I’ve read and disdained otherwise worthy novels whose musician protagonists are unlikable and reflect the author’s lack of research or understanding about the craft of music-making. A writer doesn’t have to be a musician to write a musician’s story. But they do have to have a certain reverence for the craft. Chamberlain’s skill as a playwright rescues her here. The parallels between playwright and composer—creating, then seeking audiences and grants, allowing their art to be performed in public, not to mention the artist’s dependence on the good will of influential mentors—all come together in a very believable and entertaining fashion here.

The other big thing that made this novel work so well for me: I just liked Rose, the main character, so much. This was one of those novels that I’d rush to open whenever I had a chance to read. I lived in Rose’s world for the brief (alas, too brief) time it took me to read the novel. Long after I finished the book I’m remembering her and her friends, still shaking my head over some of her delicious interpersonal conflicts—and Rose has some real zingers.

You can read my full review of The Rose Variations at MostlyFiction Book Reviews here: bookreview.mostlyfiction.com/2009/rose-variations-by-marisha-chamberlain/ And for your booklist-building pleasure, here's a list of music novels discussed in past blogs that I’ve read and enjoyed. All are narrated by music people—string musicians, composers, conductors, luthiers. Many, but not all, are written by “music people.” Some (notably Claire Kilroy’s Tender Wire) are a little on the eccentric, unpredictable side. But they are all memorable reads.

The Student Conductor - Robert Ford

While the Music Lasts – Alice McVeigh

The Song of the Lark - Willa Cather

An Equal Music - Vikram Seth

The Song of Names - Norman Lebrecht

Body and Soul - Frank Conroy

The Savior - Eugene Drucker

The Rosendorf Quartet - Nathan Shaham

Tender Wire - Claire Kilroy

The Soloist - Mark Salzman

Vivaldi’s Virgins – Barbara Quick

The Mozart Season - Virginia Euwer Wolfe  (young adult fiction)

The Rainaldi Quartet - Paul Adam

Ghost Quartet - Richard Burgin

 Synopses for several of these, as well as further reading suggestions offered by fellow v.com members in 2007, can be found at the aforementioned “Books” blog. (http://www.violinist.com/blog/Terez/20072/)


Got any to add to the list?


© 2009 Terez Rose

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