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Terez Mertes

More Classical Music Novels

September 30, 2010 at 11:28 PM

It’s time for my annual blog where I share a recent classical music novel I’ve read and ask for recommendations for future reads. This year’s addition: An Unfinished Score, by Elise Blackwell. Here’s an excerpt:

“Playing chamber music involves an intimacy between people that is no weaker than the closeness of love or sex. To play with others is to be bound by and respond to their rhythms and desires without sacrificing your own. Like sex, great music can be made with someone you know well or not at all—and with someone you loathe so long as there is passion in your hatred. Yet, unlike sex, great music can be made even with someone you merely dislike. This explains why Petra, Daniel, and Suzanne play well with Anthony, even when they find his arrangements too facile. There is some other, unnamable sensibility they share.”

The story plays out as follows: Career violist Suzanne hears over the radio about the death of her lover, orchestral conductor Alex Elling, in a plane crash. She can only grieve secretly amid the members of her household, which include emotionally-distant husband Ben, a conductor, irreverent best friend and fellow musician Petra and her young, deaf daughter. But soon Suzanne discovers hers and Alex’s secret affair was no secret. His widow calls Suzanne and extorts a favor: for Suzanne to finish the viola concerto started by her deceased husband. Desperate to keep the affair secret, even now, Suzanne reluctantly agrees.

This is a good, smoothly plotted story that seems to find that sweet spot between commercial and literary. There are some wonderful passages that offer lyrical prose and thoughtful insight into music and its composition, the separation of the social classes, betrayal and loyalty. An intriguing side story is the deafness Petra’s daughter suffers from, and Petra’s exploration of cochlear implants as a possible auditory enhancement, paving the way for introspection on the concept of hearing in general, and what it would feel like to be forever closed off to sound, to music. The story carries the occasional false note: calling the San Francisco Symphony the San Francisco Philharmonic; an overload of viola jokes that stop getting funny after the first five or six or seven; and a “romantic” scene in a hotel room with a performing, blindfolded, young superstar violinist named Joshua Felder (um, sound almost-familiar?) a hotel bed four feet away, Suzanne and her philandering conductor lover… and oh, ick, enough detail, it was bad enough to read. And no, you are not supposed to cheer when the conductor lover dies. On page one. Stop cheering.  

Blackwell is a wonderful writer, however, and this is a worthy read, particularly for its clever "third movement."  You can read my whole review here, at Mostly Fiction:

For your further reading pleasure, here’s the annual compilation of classical music novels I’ve read and particularly enjoyed over the past few years. I welcome any suggestions that others consider to be must-reads!

The Rose Variations - Marisha Chamberlain

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

The Soloist - Mark Salzman

The Rainaldi Quartet - Paul Adam 

On the list to be read: Paganini’s Ghost, also by Paul Adam: a thumbs’ up suggestion by Anne Horvath.


From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 3:09 AM

Career violist?  Conductor affair?  Viola concerto?  Tawdry hotel scene?  Do I have to read this?

(smiley face here)

Blackwell's book seems to have a suspicious whiff of Chick Lit about it.  Is it a sister companion to Vivaldi's Virgins, or is it safe to try?

New fiction is hit or miss.  Julie Orringer's Invisible Bridge was a recent good read, although the ending was a bit mushy.  No violins, sadly, but the opening chapter at the Budapest Opera makes up for that glaring oversight. 

I haven't read any violin novels since P's Ghost, but I am seeing the end of the tunnel with Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.  Finally.  No violins in that one either, at least in the first thousand pages or so...


From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 5:17 AM

Thank you for the list!  I had no idea Vikram Seth had written a novel about music.  I have enjoyed his other books.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 10:29 AM

 Oh, I'm going to read it *for* the viola jokes and tawdry hotel room scene ;-)

I think the "San Francisco Philharmonic" thing is just making the point that this book is fiction.  Don't novelists often make up real-sounding names for fictional institutions, like "Hudson University" on Law and Order?  Or maybe it's protection from a lawsuit.

I actually thought the musician-dealing-with-deafness-in-a-loved-one theme is rather cliched too, having been done in both "Children of a Lesser God" (where the William Hurt character regularly listens to and is moved by the 2nd mvt. of the Bach double, which his deaf lover cannot hear) and "Mr Holland's Opus" (in which music teacher Mr. Holland's son is found to be deaf).

But your description still makes this novel sound like a lot of fun anyway.  Thanks for the review!

I bought my daughter the book "Good Enough" by Paula Yoo that I read about on, and she really enjoyed it.  This is such a great reference for finding out about books about the violin and violinists!


From Richard Watson
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 11:42 AM

Robert Merrill co-wrote a wonderful trash novel: "The Divas". I do not remember who authored "Philharmonic". Both are from the 60s early 70s. Good airport reads. Gene Drucker had a novel published last year; much more somber stuff.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 12:03 PM

 Oh, these are such great comments, I'm going to have to address them one at a time, so no one mind me if I spew out multiple posts here.

Anne - Blackwell has written three previous books that drew critical acclaim: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and Grub. The first two, in particular, sound good and most decidedly literary and not chick lit in the least. (Didn't like #3 actually, so I won't recommend that one. It was a "satire" and kind of goofy and contrived.) I would put this one more in An Equal Music camp than VVs. Not quite as good as Vikram Seth, but the false steps I mentioned are the only gaffes. Lots and lots of talk about composers and their lives (maybe a touch too much - you can see she researched a lot, but it feels researched). She (and/or the character) really likes Fauré and Ravel, tho! 

Oh, and I meant to tell you, when you told me about Julie O.'s book - I have read one recently that carries a whiff of how you described that book, and also has music. It's called The Speed of Light, by Elizabeth Rosner, and it chronicles the adult life of two siblings, children of a Holocaust survivor. The sister is an opera singer and spends several weeks in Europe, auditioning for opera companies. The description of her singing, training, talent, etc, is just exquisite. Rosner is a poet, and it reads in the book. (For some ppl, this apparently was a frustration, as the plot wasn't traditionally structured, and a lot of the novel is just the thoughts and musings of the three main characters and flashbacks to their respective pasts.) I HIGHLY recommend this book, tho. And, if I'm not mistaken (book's back at the library so I can't check), the siblings' father came from Budapest and the daughter goes there and discovers secrets about his past, at Auschwitz, all very well rendered. A heartbreaking novel, in many ways. But the music touch was sooooo well done.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 12:18 PM

 Francesca - you're in for a treat. An Equal Music is top on the list for music novels for a LOT of people I know. I was just spellbound in a way I never got to w/his other novels. (Okay, I'll be honest. I just glanced at his other novels and they didn't draw me in, so I can't even say I read them.)

Richard - thanks for the suggestions; both those novels are unknown to me (although in the 70's and early '80's, trash was my preferred genre, I must confess. Not that all airport reads are trash, but you know what I mean...). On this:

>Gene Drucker had a novel published last year; much more somber stuff.

Is this referring to The Savior, or did his stuff get even more somber? Eeee, don't think I could handle that. Off I go, to check at Amazon and see if he's written more stuff.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 12:26 PM

 Karen - yes, I'd imagine you and Mendy would like this, with its viola angle! Nice that the author did that, instead of violinist, actually. A fresher approach. I gather the author played the viola when she was younger.

You have an excellent point, on fictionalizing the name of a venue, and I actually went back and forth over whether to say anything at all, but there were SO many details, accurate details, included in the whole novel, about Curtis, about festivals, about good orchestra cities (Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia). So many well-researched stories about composers and their work, about things that have happened in the classical music world. (Remember the story, a year or so back, when the violinist left his violin in a taxi, the driver found him and returned it, and the violinist gave the taxi driver and his friends/family a private concert? It's mentioned here.) So she was very meticulous about showing she knew the classical music world. And so the San Francisco Philharmonic stood out like a blaring wrong note. Particularly when the same paragraph made mention of Symphony Silicon Valley (this is absolutely correct; it's in San Jose).

But like I said to Anne, this particular scene wasn't any sort of reflection on the quality of the rest of the writing and the story. It just rubbed me the wrong way, so I'm just nitpicking like mad, and I figured this was one forum where people were guaranteed to understand that a tryst with a married conductor while a blindfolded violinist was playing four feet away, was NOT romantic. Although a reader at Amazon actually mentioned that scene as one of her favorites, that it was spicy and exciting to read, a la 9 1/2 Weeks. So. There you have it. Sex sells. 

And you are absolutely right about the deafness, the Mr. Holland's Opus cliché, and this time I will give Blackwell thumbs' up for how she handled the story. It was a tertiary character, Susanne's friend's daughter, so it wasn't quite so in-your-face. And Petra (Suzanne's friend) was a fabulous character, willful and irreverent herself, and she quite often got crabby about people telling her "oh, how ironic, you're a musician with a deaf daughter." So it's like Blackwell acknowledged the cliché and then went around to approaching the issue from a completely different angle. It was actually quite interesting - Blackwell researched extensively here as well.  It never felt clichéd to me. And Petra was such an interesting character, she sort of dominated the scenes when she and her daughter were both involved.

Did your daughter ever read The Mozart Season? That's one I'll highly recommend to middle school kids and violin teens. By Virginia Euwer Wolff.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 12:53 PM

 Okay, one last comment, because I haven't pressed the "Submit Response" buttons enough times yet this morning. Karen, you said this: 

>But your description still makes this novel sound like a lot of fun anyway. 

I should mention that it's a sad sort of read. A veil of gloominess hangs over it, b/c Suzanne is grieving her lover's loss, is unhappy with her husband (although she eventually catches on that hey, this is not a bad set-up. Well, duh!).  I had to stop, midway, and get a breather with some more cheerful writing, and am happy to report that Part III has some intriguing twists that really changed the energy of the whole story. 

So. Just didn't want you to get it and feel deceived, thinking "Terez made this sound like a FUN read. What's with the relentless gloom?" Okay. NOW go buy the book. : )

From Karis Crawford
Posted on October 2, 2010 at 6:03 AM

I'd like to recommend a very old book from 1916 called "Just David" by Eleanor H. Porter.  I have heard that this book was out of print but my parents found a copy several years back when I was in high school.  It is a very sweet, old fashioned book about a boy named David who is basically a child prodigy on the violin.  If you can get your hands on it, it is worth the read but VERY different from any of the modern day novels that are around!  You can get the synopsis and other info on Wikipedia if you are interested!  It's a good book for middle/high school age kids, but I can tell you my mom loved it!  She said it was a good break from the angst and silly plot twists of current novels!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 2, 2010 at 12:47 PM

 Karis - thanks for the suggestion! I love knowing names of old, good books, so that if I'm ever at an estate sale/flea market/used book store, I can keep that name in mind. You never know. And one of the books on my list, Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, is out of print and difficult to find as well. And it's also a book from a very different generation. Although Willa Cather has certainly managed to maintain her relevancy with My Antonia, which is often assigned reading for high school students (although, in truth, I couldn't finish it, and didn't have the same connection that I'd had with The Song of the Lark, which was soooooo memorable to me.)

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 2, 2010 at 4:12 PM

This site

has Willa Cather's Song of the Lark and Just David, which is new to me.  

Song of the Lark can be purchased very cheaply from Amazon.  Just pop the title into the search engine, and look in the used mass market paperback section.

I didn't know Song of the Lark is out of print.  What a shame.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 2, 2010 at 10:25 PM

 >Song of the Lark can be purchased very cheaply from Amazon.

Woo hoo! Just goes to show how the used book market can change on you. Guess the last time I checked was two years ago.

Thanks, Anne. It's one worth having in my book library.

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