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Review: The Ensemble: A Novel by Aja Gabel

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My Interest

I started reading this book in print when it came out in 2018, but ran out of time (library book with holds) and so kept it on my TBR. Modern Mrs. Darcy included it on her list of 20 Backlist Favorites From 10 Years of [her] Summer Reading Guides. I needed an audio right at that exact moment and tabbed over to the library website to see if a copy was available. This time it was an effortless “listen.” My love of classical music, my fascination with professional musicians, my lost collection of chamber music on cassettes (anyone remember the Musical Heritage Society?) and my hunger for a decent contemporary story carried me through.

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He placed the needle at the start of the second movement. ‘Hear that? That’s the noise of — of sound. The sound of people about to do something. All that white stuff. And see? It doesn’t go away, not even when they’re playing. You can hear the space around them.'”

(Daniel, p. 327)

The Story

“Being that attuned to each other’s inner emotional lives was the sometimes unfortunate side effect of playing music together. ”

Told in alternating chapters from the p.o.v. of each of the four quartet members-as they go from being Conservatory or College students intent on a serious music career through their many years together as the Van Ness Quartet–a chamber ensemble playing, recording, even competing internationally. The story interweaves the tale, sorry “narrative,” (see the end of this review) of their career as well as their private lives.

As Jana (First Violin), Britt (Second Violin), Henry (Viola) and Daniel (Cello) work, play, love, and fight together over the years they form more than a musical quartet, and more than a “work family” or support group:

“But with the quartet, they had to share a goal, distribute the dream between them, and trust that each of them had an appropriate sense of commitment. Their commitment had a way of bleeding into their lives off stage, as well. There were so many ways to betray each other.” (p. 98)

But there are tensions. No spoilers, but Jana and Henry were Conservatory students–Henry a child prodigy. Britt and Daniel went to college–Daniel to Rice, and Britt to my alma mater which has an amazing Music School, Indiana University. No spoilers but half have children, they all pair up with someone at least at various points in the story–sorry, the “narrative” (see the end of this review).

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My Thoughts

I liked this book, but did not love it. The bratty first wife of one member put my teeth on edge, and one of the two tiny sex scenes made me roll my eyes, but that’s all that was bad. It was interesting to read about professional chamber music. I thought Gable did a good job of showing her characters growth (and sometimes regression–as in when that wife came on the scene). I was pleased to find another straight, single Mom who adopted abroad–even if she was fictional. That character had some good insights into motherhood:

“I’m sorry, we don’t have to talk about the kids. I hate it when people think that’s all the can talk to me about. Like you didn’t ask me where [her daughter] was. That’s everyone’s opener when I’m without her: where’s [daughter]? As though I couldn’t possibly have a desire to do things without a child strapped to me” (p. 277).

Her quartet pal’s wife replies a bit later:

“I was thinking today about just that…about how I love my children, but that’s not the same as not being able to imagine life without them. Can I imagine life without them? Yes, absolutely.” (p. 277).

Had I not been driving, I’d have stood up and whooped at this. I’m not in motherhood to be a martyr like so many seem to be. I don’t “live” for my kids–but I’d give my life for them. Haters will hate if they want to for me saying this. I would absolutely adopt my kids again–they are the best thing that has ever happened to me. But that does not mean they define me or define my life. I liked the way these two moms saw motherhood.

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I loved (and envied) being able to afford to jump on a plane and go to the closing of a favorite sheet music shop–and that both the man and the woman in the couple wanted to do the trip. It helped that both are in the quartet of course. But to have someone special to share such a special place with was truly envy-inducing.

“Their visit to the shop would not have been memorable if not for the saturated memories of the past they carried around like vintage photographs in their minds” (p. 308)

Since about 1995, you can date novels fairly accurately by the politically correct lesson of the moment inserted or rammed into them. This one is just a little late to the game of bashing the Christian faith. And, just enough reluctance is inserted to make me keep reading. What made this book different from those I’ve hurled across the room and dnf-ed, was that the character whose parents are religious, at least has the maturity at the time of reflection to admit faith was probably the only thing big enough to make up for the disappointments in his mother’s life. He does not mock his mother when his wife brings up that her mother-in-law said she’d “pray” for us (you could just see the little quote fingers flying as she said it). He does not say mean things or act superior to his parents–he doesn’t cut them out of his life or blame them for everything that has ever gone wrong for him. Later in the book is a reflection by another that this man had had a secure childhood. This was a novel and refreshing twist to the bashing story.

I could fill pages of my Commonplace Book with wonderfully turned phrases, but could someone please tell me what “cousin to the tongue” was supposed to illustrate? (And explain why anyone let it survive in the final version of the manuscript?)That one alone got an eye roll from me. It’s not an MFA program. Don’t try that hard to make a great quote. The rest were wonderful and seemed effortless–as they should.

Finally, what is it with this generation and the word “narrative”? Good grief there are many easily substituted synonyms. Naturally, no editor (if one even still exists) nor any early reader mentioned how often she uses narrative or how annoying the overuse of the word became.

The Ensemble: A Novel by Aja Gabel

I listened to the audio, then grabbed an e-book copy for the quotes. There were so many. I am always “disappointed” when an audio has amazing language because I fail to capture most of the quotes I love. Sometimes I find them in the Quotes section of Goodreads, or if early enough in the book, in the Amazon Kindle preview. Otherwise I have to try to get a hard copy. I do not like to get an e-book for this purpose due to the Draconian pricing for libraries. But though MMD will give this book a good boost, it’s check-outs are mostly behind it, so I went ahead.

Read more about this book here, in the NPR review.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Ensemble: A Novel by Aja Gabel

  1. Fabulous review. It’s always great to find points of connection. Or was an ok read for me….a bit on the meh side. From which country did you adopt your children?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved your review so much on Goodreads and, when I saw it here, I read it again. My connection would be my love of classical music also.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my — the Musical Heritage Society!! I remember the thrill I had as I chose my 12 (or whatever) FREE items to join!!! I don’t think I have any of them now either, but I haven’t thought of MHS in years. Thanks for the memory!!

    Liked by 1 person

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