A second-time-around romance between Michael, a violinist and Julia, a pianist. He runs into her on a London bus and learns she is married to a banker and has a son. They resume their love, but drama lies ahead as Julia is going deaf. By the author of A Suitable Boy.
This is a novel of unresolved relationships, in the manner of a fugue that never quite manages to properly conclude. Why did Michael abandon Julia in Vienna years before? What was the big problem between him and his teacher Carl Kall? What drives the individual members of the quartet - what combines them and what separates them?
Seth pursues these threads while always keeping the music at the forefront of the readers' minds : a mysterious Beethoven quintet, Bach's "Art Of Fugue", Schubert's "Trout Quintet", the dynamics of string instruments, rehearsals and public performance. Only at one point - the interlude in Venice towards the end of the book - does the music take a (comparative) back seat, and it is no surprise that this is where the story dips in tension and meanders a little.
The strength of the novel lies in its descriptions - closely observed, poetic, vivid, and yet somehow spare too; the narrative is nicely paced, with tensions largely maintained and no needless sidetracks. If anything, the sense of claustrophobia is built remorselessly through the first half of the novel, and while it persists through to the end, the accompanying tension and slight sense of mystery seems to dissipate somewhat in the second half.
The novel's big flaw - though this may have been Seth's intention? - is the character of its narrator Michael. Several women appear to fall for him, yet it is hard to understand why. He is moody, selfish in a nagging and insistent kind of way, and apparently insensitive to his lovers' needs due to his emotional immaturity. He is in many senses every woman's nightmare : initially impressing as attractive, sensitive, artistic and talented, but poisoning this through his marked negative traits which emerge sooner or later. The love for him by Julia is particularly incomprehensible, and in her position I would either given him a good slap, or given up on him pretty quick; I certainly would not have returned for a second helping.
That aside, this is an absorbing book and it is not essential to have a deep knowledge of music in order to enjoy it.
- Run-away poetic sentences and stream-of-consciousness narratives popping up out of nowhere,
- Mostly flat characterizations,
- Melodramatic story,
- Tiresome literary exercise for those who konw music and definitely a bit too much for those who don't.
There is a surprising plot twist here, which I will not reveal, since to do so would spoil the surprise and the book for the reader. But the twist does bring up some interesting moral questions. To what lengths would you go to play the music that you love with the person that you love? Would you risk your own career? Would you risk the careers and reputations of your friends and colleagues?
The decisions made by Michael are interesting to question and debate, something that would make this a good book club selection. His character is, for me, too self-centered and indecisive, although the author does an entirely convincing job portraying Michael's character.
The descriptions of the music and the musicians ring true, and musicians of any instrument or style of music should find the book an interesting and enjoyable read.
Michael Home is a violinist whose life has been devoted to music . Ten years before the novel starts, in the late 1980s, he was an impoverished student at a conservatoire in Vienna where he mat and fell madly in love with Julia, a talented pianist. Everything seems set for them to stay together, marry and pursue their careers when Michael suddenly, but irreparably falls out with his tutor and, without notice, leaves both Vienna and Julia MacNichol. Almost immediately Michael realises his error, at least with regard to Julia, and he struggles to re-establish contact with her, but she has passed completely from his life.
Over the intervening years he has established himself as an accomplished violinist, taking occasional commissions to play in orchestras and smaller ensembles, and for the last six years has been second fiddle in the renowned Maggiore Quartet. Relations within the Quartet are not easy, and there are particular tensions with Piers, the first violinist who is an especially prickly character. Still, the Quartet moves from success to greater success, and has just been commissioned to undertake performance in Vienna and Venice, and to complete a recording for a specialist classical label. And then, from the top of a London bus that has been brought to a stop on Oxford Street, Michael glimpses Julia on top of a bus going in the other direction. He chases after her, even flagging down a taxi and pleading with the cab-driver to, "Follow that bus!", but seems to have lost her again.
They do, however, meet again, and Michael finds that Julia is now married, and has established herself as a revered solo pianist under her married name. Their friendship is rekindled, and Michael learns that Julia has a devastating secret.
While their relationship has been re-established the Quartet has become increasingly successful, and seems now to be on the verge of breaking through to the front rank of classical performers. Seth was himself in a long-term relationship with French violinist, Philippe Honore, himself a feted performer and sometime member of various high profile chamber music ensembles. The work is set through with detailed musical insights, though this never becomes oppressive, even to a dilettante such as myself. Indeed, the insight to the tensions within the quartet, and the occasional jealousies that the contrasting roles can engender, are fascinating. The different members of the quartet are clearly drawn: Piers, the highly-strung (no feeble pun intended), gay first violinist, wracked with paranoia and very defensive over his role as leader, Piers's sister Helen, the viola player, who is the peacemaker, and Billy, the intellectual cellist and technician, who develops the official briefing notes for the quartet's forays into any new piece. The relationship between the four is vibrant - constantly changing and as mutually nourishing when it works as it is draining when strained.
Seth also paints a sympathetic picture of the constant economic plight of the performers, most of whom are using borrowed instruments which leave them at the mercy of their benefactors. Michael's violin is actually owned by Mrs Formby, a rich old widow from his native Rochdale who took and early interest in him as a boy. We never learn how she came to own the Tononi violin which she has lent to Michael. He loves the violin almost more than life itself, and lives in constant fear that she will reclaim it, especially once he learns that her nephew (and closest living relative) has been dropping hints to her about his need to finance his daughters' education. Piers is in a similar quandary, and there is a marvellous scene at a musical auction house when Piers bids for a particularly lovely Rogeri violin.
I was entranced by the descriptions of the different pieces that the Quartet plays, with the performer's insight offering a totally different perspective to that of the occasional listener.
A beautiful book with some startling episodes that are entirely unexpected, yet also utterly believable. This is, by far, the finest novel about music that I have read.
In addition to the romantic storyline, this character-driven novel follows several other threads related to Julia, the other members of the quartet, Michael's family, a former professor, and a mentor in his hometown. Seth brings all of this together through music. Having played the violin myself for a number of years, I really enjoyed this view of the international music scene and the many different composers and works referenced throughout. Some understanding of and appreciation for classical music is important to get the most out of this enjoyable romantic novel.
The characters are of a different type; rather than Indians as in "A Suitable Boy", here they are English and/or European. Instead of an epic story, "An Equal Music" is a story about musicians and it is also a love story.
This is not an effort to compare the two books unfavorably or otherwise, but just to say that it's interesting that Vikram Seth has used different writing style and approaches for his books. For example "Golden Gate", which I have not read yet, is a novel set in verse. He has also written some non-fiction works.
The beginning of the book is excellent. Seth manages to richly describe musical experiences and you can see that the guy did a lot of research about every single topic he brought up: classics, the relationship between musicians in quartets, the beauty of the instruments and the process. And the best part: the descriptions are not tiring. They're full of poetry and romance and colors. Still, the book gets tiring not because of the descriptions or the somewhat cliche plot, but because of the repetitive characters. I didn't mind the sad ending. What really bothered me is that Michael, the main character, is annoying. No matter how much of a dreamer a person can be, I seriously do not believe someone can be so angsty and dramatic and repetitive as him. It's almost like he actually enjoys suffering. And his beloved one, the pianist Julia seems to always be stuck in the indecision and ends up making the stupidest, coldest, emptiest decisions ever. She seems to be a puppet of her own self-piety rather than a "fighter". Now join both main characters and their lack of objectivity and you'll have one of the most circular, boring love stories ever. The progress of their relationship (if any) is painfully slow and seems to go nowhere.
Well, at least the other characters were pretty nice. I found that the Maggiore Quartet was really lovely and tolerant and human.
In other words, the book had a pretty nice beginning. Too bad it wasn't able to keep up with it for the rest of the story.
An Equal Music is a wonderful book of love won and lost. The book is written in the first person as Michael Holmes, our main character, narrates his life and experiences. We read about how he walked out on the love of his life, Julia, in Vienna where they both lived and studied. Ten years later, Michael is living and working in London and is part of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He thinks of Julia daily and dwells upon the regret of leaving her years ago. One day, Michael spots Julia on a bus in London having never thought he would see her again. Michael embarks on a mission to find her and win her love once again.
This is the first book I have read by Vikram Seth. I had heard of A Suitable Boy which seems to have been a heavyweight contender in book awards. I have to say having read An Equal Music I do love how he writes and I read the book quite quickly (for me that is!). Seth has a wonderful ability of conjuring up sights, smells and emotions. From the beauty of Venice to the cultural cities of Vienna and London, Seth describes the places wonderfully. A big surprise to me, and nestled within all of this beauty, was the mention of Rochdale and the moors which surround this area, not somewhere which often gets a mention in a major piece of fiction. Michael hails from Rochdale and occasionally goes to visit his father there. When he talks about going back to visit and going out to eat at ‘Owd Betts’, the pub up on the moors, I got rather excited because we go there to eat now and again. They do a very nice cheese and onion pie by the way….
Seth describes the scenery surrounding the pub with a windswept beauty and one which I have forgotten to notice having become so familiar with the area.
There are many, many reviews on this book which seem to provide two very different viewpoints. An Equal Music seems to be a book of Marmite. You’ll either love it or hate it. Most reviewers do love the writing, the story and the character development. However, there are some that find it rather self-indulgent and pompous. This mainly relates to Michael and his obsession around his love for Julia, his need to have her in his life and the effect this has on his behaviour. I can see how people could feel this way and indeed I did think this at several points of the story, that kind of ‘get a grip man!’ feeling. However, I don’t see this as a negative aspect of the book and would even say that Seth has scored a victory in character portrayal if people feel this way. I believe this is integral to the story. As well as bringing joy and happiness, Love can make us selfish, self-indulgent, pitiful and obsessive especially where love has been lost and yet we still desire that person and want to be with them at all costs. Ultimately this is the story which Michael has to tell.
An Equal Music is not really a book I would initially go for. I’m not big on love and romance books however, I do enjoy books on character development, relationships and struggles which Vikram Seth portrays well. All in all a surprisingly good read.
Ten years later, he meets her again in London at the concert he gives with his quartet. He still loves her but now Julia is married, has a child and suffers from a terrible disease which is gradually making her go deaf. She still plays the piano and accepts a tour with Michael's quartet in Vienna and Venice as her last performance as an ensemble player.
During the tour, they argue and Julia leaves Venice. She refuses to see Michael and their relationship disintegrates. He hears on the ‘grapevine’ that she is giving a solo concert, but when he discovers she will be playing Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’, which his quartet is rehearsing for a recording, he cannot cope. He leaves the quartet and launches into a world of depression.
Quite slow moving. Sections are very introspective/stream of consciousness and difficult to follow. Not a gripping ending!
love of violin — good w/ CD to Lynn
Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl. Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.
Against the magical backdrop of Venice and Vienna, the two lovers confront the truth about themselves and their love, about the music that both unites and divides them, and about a devastating secret that Julia must finally reveal.
Novel rather too deeply into music details for my level of interest especially when scenes are of the Maggiore Quartet. But novel is beautifully written.