An Equal Music

by Vikram Seth

Hardcover, 1999

Call number




Broadway (1999), Edition: 1st, 400 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Tid
Michael is a violin player. Michael plays in a string quartet. Michael's two loves are his violin and his ex-lover Julia. Michael tracks down a rare Beethoven quintet. From these bare bones, Vikram Seth constructs a sonata of a novel. Music is the narrative thread, indeed it is more than that : it
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is the heart of the story. It weaves in and around the complex dynamics and strange interpersonal relationships that lie at the claustrophobic heart of a string quartet.

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.
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LibraryThing member fglass
These elements wasted my time:
- 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.
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This is a marvellous novel on so many different planes.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Michael Holme is a violinist in London, a member of the Maggiore String Quartet. Although he has been somewhat successful, he is unhappy, haunted by Julia McNicholl, a love interest from his student days in Vienna 10 years ago. Everything is turned upside-down when Julia suddenly reappears in
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Michael's life. Although Julia is now married with a young son, she and Michael are unable to resist each other's company. She even agrees to accompany the quartet on a trip to Vienna and Venice; Julia is a pianist and is hired to perform selected works with the quartet.

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.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
For 'read but unowned' in my tags, substitute 'thrown away'. I bought cheap copies of this and another novel about musicians following a recommendation, but I obviously have different standards to the other eager reviewer. For a start, a narrator whose head isn't jammed up his own backside. Julia,
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the long-suffering object (and I don't use the term lightly) of his affections, is a great character, and I would have loved to read the same story from her perspective, but Michael is an egotistical twit. He abandons her in Vienna, while suffering some pretentious existential musical crisis, then decides that a decade is a good length of time to try and pick up where they left off, despite Julia having married and moved on with her life. She has a bit of a fling with him while trying to deal with her own (actually important and life-changing) issues, then tries to shake him off - so he turns into a crazy stalker. I actually really hated him, and had to remind myself that I was only reading about a fictional character - and if Vikram Seth, who has written better novels, was aiming to create such a loathsome protagonist, then more power to his word processor. Basically, another novel about music where the characters suffer for the author's art.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
A novel of music and obsession. Michael Holme is a violinist, the second violin on the famous Maggiore String Quartet. A decade earlier, instead of pursuing a solo career, he left his teacher in Austria and retreated to London. He also abandoned the love of his life, Julia. Imagine his surprise
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when he sees her on a London bus. She shows up at one of the quartets concerts, and they begin an affair, since she is now married with a son.

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.
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LibraryThing member milti
A lot of technical details about music, a lot of generalisations about love. But I think it should be read for the sheer effort that he must have put into it. It is a beautiful testimony to both love and the joy of music.
LibraryThing member tandah
It was a fantastically told story, I raced through it and particularly enjoyed learning more about music, and the personalities that make up the quartet. My one reservation was the narrator Michael, it's all about him ... selfish, immature and obsessed.
LibraryThing member ExtremelyAvg
Even better after listening to the sound track. I love it.
LibraryThing member itbgc
After 76 pages, I gave up on the book because I was bored to tears.
LibraryThing member BeeQuiet
Incredibly written, Seth has a true way with words. I should in a way give it five stars, but I only do that if I feel really personally engaged with a book. I felt that the characters in this book lived in a world completely different to my own, and Seth was unfortunately unable to bridge that gap
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for me.
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LibraryThing member amysical
I think An Equal Music by Vikram Seth is a true masterpiece. I picked up the book because it was about a violinist, as I am as well, although I haven't picked up my violin in a while. The book so accurately portrays the joy and wonders of being a musician, along with the struggles and hardships
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that a musician faces.

The Daily Mail newspaper claimed that this book is a " clear, lovely and civilised as a Schubert quartet', which is also how I feel. The book reads like a music score. There are slow and beautiful parts, and quick and heart racing parts. This book is simply a masterpiece.

The protagonist Michael is a violinist in a string quartet with his closest friends. He nurtures the heartache of his lost love Julia, the love of his life. Their relationship fell apart but his feelings for her never died, despite the years that have passed since he last saw her.

He is eventually reunited with her when she comes along to one of his quartet's performances. She is now married with a child, but has a terrible problem that could destroy her music career. The story picks up dramatically as we follow Michael and Julia. We long to see them in love again. But can her problem affect their relationship as well as her music career?

An Equal Music takes us through a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We follow Michael's journey with his beloved violin, the beautiful Tononi, and his hobby of swimming. We share the same longings and hopes that he has. We want the best for him.

Do not be discouraged if you are not a musician. This book will touch your heart just as it has touched mine even if you are not a musician. There are several musical terms used in this book, but a quick search for them in the dictionary will show you what they mean.
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LibraryThing member michael09
Extrardinary achievement for an Indian author to create the world of a working class boy from the north of England who becomes a professional musician in London. Also a beautifully written love story. Although "A Suitable Boy" was more successful, I was more impressed by the sheer imginative
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craftismanship of "an Equal Music" .
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LibraryThing member calwebb
never read a book that is so thoughtful about music and has made me want to know more about music
LibraryThing member miketroll
Vikram Seth's splendid first novel, A Suitable Boy, was a desperately hard act to follow. The premise of this, his second novel, is a consuming passion for music. If you're not obsessed with music yourself, you may not discover a consuming passion for this book.
LibraryThing member dalzan
Michael Holme is a violinist, now a student in Vienna. While playing together in a trio, he falls in love with pianist Julia McNicholl. Because of the tension imposed on him by his teacher, he has a nervous breakdown and he leaves Vienna suddenly. After a few months, he realizes how much he misses
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Julia and tries to get in touch with her again but he receives no answer.

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!
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LibraryThing member themiddlemoffat
Tedious, over-descriptive,lacking tension and authentic characters. Stereo-typing of Northern background. The descriptions of London and music references raised the level of enjoyment.
LibraryThing member topologyrob
A good story, but it doesn't ring really true regarding the life of a chamber musician (well, it goes pretty far, but doesn't quite get there).
LibraryThing member piefuchs
I find it hard to believe that the same person who wrote the Suitable Boy wrote this piece of drivel. The characters were 2 dimensional and the plot worthy of a Harlequin romance novel.
LibraryThing member Martha_Thayer
Great read for anyone who has played been part of a musical ensemble. True-to-life rehearsal conversations, personality conflicts, etc.
LibraryThing member amelish
A dreamlike novel about music. Chamber music, classical music mostly, with some Mozart and Bach and other non-classicals mixed in (I can never get those straight). It's also the story of a [failed] romance. It's overwhelmingly affecting at one point in particular, near the end, when our narrator
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(and me, the reader) threatens to be crushed by hopelessness. Significant catharsis is afforded by the ending, however.
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LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
It's hard to review this book without giving away too much. I will say, however, that it is very different from Seth's "A Suitable Boy" (one of my very favorite books). For one thing, "An Equal Music" is much shorter.
The characters are of a different type; rather than Indians as in "A Suitable
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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.
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LibraryThing member PennyAnne
Another book I picked off my shelf simply because it had been sitting there unread for years and again I ask myself "why did I leave it so long?" I loved this book - the deep exploration of music and musicians, the strange love story, the descriptions, the language, the fact that it references
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Vienna - just an all-round great book! #EqualMusic #VikramSeth
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LibraryThing member Marse
Vikram Seth is one of those writers who belong to a different realm altogether. His language flows like a fresh stream -- clear, alive, authentic. Even the most esoteric of subjects becomes engrossing and comprehensible. In this novel, a classical violinist, part of a quartet, is unhappy. Music is
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the only thing that still keeps him going, and then someone from his past returns into his life and plunges him into a despairing last grasp at love.

You don't have to know anything about quartets or music to be mesmerized by the arrangements, the issues involved in being part of a musical group. Then there is the love story -- the wonderful pain of a second chance that really isn't. And last, the tragedy of losing the ability to do the one thing you were meant to do. All of this comes together in this touching novel. Bravo!
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LibraryThing member moukayedr
Music is one of the main characters in this novel. It is the connection that runs through the protagonists' life. Sometimes it brings them together, and other times it tears them apart.

Michael Holme is a violinist in a quartet of chamber music. Music is central in his life. In fact it was the one
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influence that uplifted him from his working class background in Rochdale near Manchester. Yet although quite accomplished as a musician in London, his beloved violin is still one he borrowed from an elderly violinist in his hometown, the woman who nurtured his love and talent for music. Now his life revolves around recreating and re-interpreting classical music with his quartet. And he helps finance his artist's life with the "mutual drudgery" of teaching the violin to an array of students with varied degrees of dedication. The inward and outward order of his life is suddenly brought into chaos after a chance meeting with Julia, the lover he never managed to forget.

The writers describes the emotional journey Michael takes in the space between the absence and resurrection of love, and how this emotional journey exacts a great toll on his career and life.

I enjoyed the treatment of the universal themes of love and loss through the prism of a musician's life. Michael, and to some extent the other musical characters, are naturally intense and they express feelings through their performances, and interactions with each other, and the world. Micheal is hugely flawed and selfish, but his emotions and responses are believable.

Also interesting are the small insights into the chamber music scene. I learned for example, about the unique bond between the musician and his or her instrument. The special piece becomes closer than a lover, and an extension of the self. This bond can sometime become a destructive obsession, as in a scene where two musicians tried to outbid each other on a violin they both coveted. Michael makes for an interesting guide into this whole scene. Because of his background, he was not born into a privileged background that allowed him to enjoy music, he rather met his musical destiny through his elderly friend Mrs. Formby, and his relationship with the art remains one of wonder and discovery. When I got to know him in the novel, I felt that he was still not fully comfortable in his place in this world, as if he expects that his acquired privilege will be taken from him at some time.

This is a bittersweet story of love, loss and redemption, that will speak to human feelings, and sensitivities, not recommended to those who like a roller coaster ride of non-stop action.
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Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2001)
Crossword Book Award (Winner — English Fiction — 1999)




0767902912 / 9780767902915
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