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Terez Mertes

Music Novels, Revisited

July 31, 2009 at 9:54 PM


“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: 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 members in 2007, can be found at the aforementioned “Books” blog. (


Got any to add to the list?


© 2009 Terez Rose

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 3:13 AM

Thank you for this review, and for all these wonderful suggestions Terez! I recently read "The Rainaldi Quartet" and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It takes the reader on a fun and satisfying vicarious ride, with descriptions of historic places and instruments, plus a wonderful and satisfying fantasy that nevertheless is not too fantastic to be plausible for fiction. I really liked it.

And I love the Song of the Lark, can't really read it too many times.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 4:11 AM

Yay, Books Part Deux!

Anne Rice's Violin should be mentioned, even if she is a bit strange...her novel Cry To Heaven is about singers, but she nails it in that one. 

Vivaldi's Virgins is Chick Lit, with much footwear description, as I recall.  I read it once...

Drucker's is terrific. 

I haven't read the Chamberlain, Burgin, Kilroy, Shaham, Conroy, or McVeigh novels.  Time to browse Amazon... When are the book reports due?  (Insert smiley face here).


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 9:43 AM

It's kind of sad that I do more reading about books these days than actual reading of books!  But I did finish a book in German over vacation.  It was called "Dear Germany" by Carol Kloeppel and was about an American woman who married a German man (like me) and moved to Germany with him (unlike me--my husband moved here and could write a corresponding book called something like "Liebe Amis").  My success reading that book might finally give me courage the to read Gidon Kramer's biography, Zwischen Welten (Between Worlds), that has been sitting there on my nightstand, staring at me.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 1:36 PM

 Laurie - thanks for the nice comments. Yup, I'm with you on your comments about those two books.

Anne - I remember you weren't too keen on VV, but you have to admit, she described Venice - and those shoes - very very well. : ) I wavered putting it on the list, as it was clear the author knew little about playing the violin, but face it, she put a story about classical music into the mainstream mind. The book has done quite well.  But you should really, really read the Shaham book (with a last name like that, how could it be bad?!). It was incredibly soulful, intelligent, engaging; not quite a traditional novel format and trajectory, but it sure worked for me.

Karen - books read in foreign languages count for 10x the credit. : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 1:46 PM

 Okay, I have to give While the Music Lasts an extra little pitch here. When I read it, a year ago, I just loved it and thought "why hasn't a v.commer mentioned this wonderful book?" It's about the interpersonal relationships and trials/conflicts/etc within an orchestra. The author is a freelance cellist whose played with several orchestras. But then I started worrying that the story might not appeal to non-women's fiction readers, in that it's really all about the relationships and in truth, not a huge amount more. Some great little subplots, tho. And the writing really, really appealed to me. Great music detail, great behind the scenes look at orchestral dynamics and personalities. Very accessible writing, delicious use of humor. So, I would encourage checking this one out for those reasons. 

Here's the first paragraph:

Warren Wilson, having swallowed two hundred and nineteen pills, balanced the last pill delicately on the bones of his wrists. In truth he looked all bones, a lean, stretched face locked on to a narrow body, but all he noticed was the lines of his hands. He had once, he thought, been proud of his hands. Tapered, strongly sculpted, they had made his living from twenty-two to forty-two, from what he considered the beginning to the end. And tonight, tonight was the end.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 3:29 PM

I wouldn't know about Venice, I've never been there.  Shoes I don't care much about...

Well, I've got my Fall Reading List!  Thanks!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 7:52 PM

Thanks, Terez.  I haven't read a novel in a long time.  The one whose first paragraph you quoted in one of your comments sounds especially appealing to me.  How is your music novel doing?


From Royce Faina
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 9:16 PM

As a reader I shall look into the list you have provided!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2009 at 11:06 PM

 Thanks for commenting, Pauline and Royce! Pauline - my "music and dance" novel (not to be confused with my "violinist novel" of two years earlier, even though my violinist appears in both novels, but I'm not marketing #2 anymore b/c #3 is stronger) is coming along great. Just finished a rewrite this past week and now it goes off to my agent to see if it passes muster. Probably a bit more rewriting to go before it goes to market.

From Nha H
Posted on August 2, 2009 at 3:08 AM

Terez-Could I have the author's name for  While the Music Lasts?  I looked on Amazon but couldn't find it.  The top 3 books with the same names all have female protagonists and nobody named Warren Wilson.

thanks in advance.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 2, 2009 at 3:57 AM

 Alice McVeigh is the author, and here's the Amazon link:

Although I must say, I'm shocked at how much of the plot the Publishers' Weekly review reveals. Ah, well. Spoiler alert...

From Kim Salistean
Posted on August 3, 2009 at 2:20 AM

I have enjoyed a series of books that followed a particular British sleuth.  I can't remember his name, but the title I remember is called "Orchestrated Death", by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  It is about a violinist who is murdered.  I checked this out from our public library and it is worth a look this summer. 

The other book I recently read that related to music and particularly the violin, is called "The Music Teacher" by Barbara Hall.  it was featured in MORE magazine and is an easy and fast read. 

I also enjoyed "A Song of the Lark".  When I moved to Nebraska as a 18 year old college student, I had never heard of Willa Cather.  A few years ago, I decided I really needed to explore her writings and I loved that book.

From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on August 3, 2009 at 2:29 AM

As long as Willa Cather makes the list, I think her novel LUCY GAYHEART qualifies as well.  Lucy is a pianist, and that makes all the difference-- even during the years she doesn't play out !  (trying to verify my facts, I learn that my copy has gone AWOL, so I hope memory is correct here...) (correct or not, read Willa Cather-- she's always great!)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 3, 2009 at 12:56 PM

 Thanks for the suggestions, Kim and Gabriel. And Gabriel, I have YOU to thank for the Ghost Quartet suggestion. Richard Burgin is a very talented writer - the novel's minimalist's style is a little deceptive; you think it's an "easy read" but it delves quite deeply into the characters' conundrums. (Wrong word, but let's just say you see the terrible stickiness of their situations.) But, as Burgin has won three Pushcart Prizes and is the founder/editor of the literary journal Boulevard, it's no surprise he's got a master's touch. (For non-short-story people, the Pushcart Prize is as big as it gets for short story writers.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 4, 2009 at 6:46 PM

Terez - thanks so much for your list and comments.  I have read some but not all of those, so you have given me some new ideas (after I finish reading the book I am reading on the Euro and few other odds and ends).  One play I would love to read or see is Samuel Beckett's "Ghost Trio", inspired by the slow movement of Beethoven's Ghost Trio.  Beckett was an excellent classical pianist, so it would be interesting to see what he made of the piece.  However, I have been unable to locate a copy, nor have I ever seen any sign of it being performed.

In the area of novels, "The Violin Lover" by Susan Glickman is pretty good.  Takes place in London just before WWII and is a sort of interesting counterpoint to Lebrecht's novel.   Then, if you really like the perverse there is "The Piano Teacher" by Nobel Prize Winner Elfriede Jelinek.   A great novel, but not for the faint of heart.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 5, 2009 at 3:19 AM

 >In the area of novels, "The Violin Lover" by Susan Glickman is pretty good.  Takes place in London just before WWII and is a sort of interesting counterpoint to Lebrecht's novel.

Ooh, I'm on it!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 5, 2009 at 3:26 AM

 ... Drat. The book is hard to get (meaning I can't get it for .01 $ on Amazon and my local library network doesn't have a copy). I think you brought this up one time before, Tom, and I looked it up with the same results. Too bad we don't have a lending library, eh? : )  Maybe when I'm rich and successful, I'll create one. Don't know if books will still be around in that century, tho. : /

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