Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

An Equal Music

I keep on wanting to call this book An Equal Magic. I’ve typed it that way into Google several times — which might tell you what I think of the book. It’s enchanting, and altogether wonderful. It’s an emotionally intense book, and some readers are going to be put off by that. I’m not one of them. I felt right at home in the emotional world of Michael Holme, a violinist who lives and works in London, scratching out a meager existence as second violin in a tightly bonded quartet. Michael’s twin passions are music, and a woman named Julia whom he loved years ago when they were students in Vienna, and whom he lost when he impulsively fled Vienna after a confrontation with his mentor and teacher.

Ten years after their relationship abruptly ended, Michael by the sheerest chance spots Julia in a bus stuck in traffic next to the bus he is in. He chases after her, loses her again, but then she turns up at a quartet performance. From that point, it’s on again off again — but always with music in the foreground. For both Michael and Julia, music is the central passion of their lives — as much so as their passion for each other. Indeed, music is the language of their relationship — almost a metaphor for their love. It brings them together, but it’s also what drives them apart. And in the end, Seth seems to be saying, music is a deeper, more elemental need and more important to our humanity than most of the avenues by which we seek happiness.

More reviews:

  • Akash Kapur, Salon Books:

    … There are many emotional twists and turns (which I won’t ruin by giving away), and at its best the book is a gripping and profound meditation on love, music and the irrevocability of time (“the swift ellipses of the earth,” in Seth’s masterful formulation). Narrated in the present tense, in an insistent first person, this meditation is intensely personal; unlike anything Seth has previously written, the novel is distinguished by remarkable psychological portraiture.

  • Complete Review calls the book “sappy” — but adds that “… opinions vary widely as to whether this [is] a good or a fatal thing.”
  • The Austin Chronicle:  “By looking at the names, and learning the settings — London, Vienna, and Venice, with soundtracks, respectively, of Bach, Schubert, and Vivaldi — it’s clear what sort of novel this is: romantic, sad, and delicious.”
  • Guardian.co.uk:

    The unfolding of [Michael and Julia’s] on-off-on relationship is swathed in a highly wrought rococo construction of musical reference to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and virtually any composer who ever attempted a string quartet (Bartok, Shostakovich, Tippett, Carter and Ligeti) set against a backdrop of European musical capitals: Venice, Vienna and London. …

    Seth is always highly readable, deeply sympathetic to his characters, even when they seem to have stepped from central casting, and so exquisitely versed in the English and European cultural tradition that admirers of A Suitable Boy will wonder if his writing will ever return to the India of his birth.

Random House has the official reading group guide — very useful, with readers’ reviews, book description, and suggested questions for discussion.

Read the complete book at Google Books.

Buy the double CD containing the complete music for all the musical works mentioned in the book.

Read an interview with Vikram Seth at Bold Type. And another one at the Guardian Observer.

More information on Vikram Seth at:

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2009 by in Book Reviews.
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