Photo courtesy of Darcie Burrell
Our June goop Book Club pick, The Ensemble, is one of our all-time favorite novels. It’s about four friends who make up an ambitious string quartet, and it follows them throughout the years as they try to sort out their complicated relationships to music and one another. You won’t be able to quit
Read the beginning of the novel below and then join our book club Facebook group, members-only Zoom chats, and a live conversation with the author Aja Gabel at the end of June.
From The Ensemble
It’s a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage. The famous violinist, Fodorio, had coached the quartet earlier in the week, and it was what he’d said after they had finished a run-through of the Dvořák “American,” which, according to Jana, was definitely not a love story. But here they were, the Van Ness String Quartet, performing in their final graduation recital at the conservatory, starting the shimmering notes of the first movement, and all she could think, as much as thinking was involved at all, was: maybe it was a love story.
It was a love letter to the country, as she understood it from her classes. Dvořák’s European peasant take on American folk songs. But how could someone think this was a story of romantic love? It seemed to Jana to be more classic than that: a person falls for the dream of a place, for a life that could be lived there, for something they were not but might be. It was about the shimmering itself, that almost visible stuff that hovered just above the hot pavement of your life. Potential, aspiration, accomplishment. The famous violinist who had coached them—Fodorio, she could not bring herself to say his name—was sort of a hack, anyway, at least when it came to teaching. Jana would never tell him to his face, but she enjoyed the solemn interior pleasure of her disdain. What did he know? Here’s what she knew: that the Dvořák “American” was about the simple opportunity of America, and that no one was more closely acquainted with identifying and consuming opportunity than she was. By the time Henry’s viola solo entered three bars later she had decided again: no, it was not a love story.
It’s a love story was not something Henry remembered from the coaching session, and certainly not what was running through his mind when he introduced the jaunty Americana melody in the third bar. Instead, what had glommed on to the inside of Henry was what Fodorio had said when he passed Henry his card as he was packing up his viola. Call me if you decide this quartet business isn’t for you, he’d said. I can set up a few recitals in front of the right people in New York. You could have a great solo career. Henry had wordlessly taken the card, slid it into the velvet pocket inside his case, and had not moved it since. But the card throbbed there nonetheless. If you decide this quartet business isn’t for you—as though Fodorio had already decided it was not for Henry, and was simply waiting for Henry to come to the same conclusion. But Henry hadn’t decided anything at all. He never did, young as he was and blessed with the kind of talent that guided his life’s decisions for him.
Whether or not it was a love story did not concern Daniel, as these days he didn’t have room in his life for romance or enduring love, or any symptom or side effect of the two. Not when he had to practice twice as hard to keep up with the rest of the quartet and their maddeningly natural abilities, and especially Henry, whose obscene talent teetered on the edge of prodigy, who could play drunk, blind, in love or out of it. There was no space for love in Daniel’s life when he had to work real jobs in addition to their schooling, moonlighting at a bar in the Castro, picking up wedding gigs when he could, and teaching beginning cello lessons to rich kids in Pacific Heights. It’s a love story: sure, okay, but what else?
Of course it’s a love story, thought Brit, though she thought everything was. This note here, and this one, this joyful countermelody, her second violin harmony, the collective intangible, the audible agreement. Her relationship with Daniel, which he’d rather coldly cut off a few days ago. Even the absence of love was a love story for her. Even this pain, this suffering. It was useful. Though she imagined one day no longer needing to know that, or she fantasized about rewinding her life and starting over so she was a person who did not have to know that, or she entertained the idea of a parallel Brit, living in a world in which there was no need to make sense of a man who up and left on the brink of love, of people who up and left, of a life strung together with all these little leavings, but she felt sad for this parallel Brit, an emptier sadness than she felt for herself now. They were all love stories.
And though no one would have explicitly admitted it, what it was about—love or something else—was entirely up to Jana: it depended on the way she took a quiet, sharp, and precisely timed breath in an upbeat before the first note, on the pressure of her attack on that first note, on the space she left between the first and second notes, on the degree and length and resonance of the vibrato she applied to the violin neck. It was up to her minute movements, certainly in the beginning of the piece, if not after. Even the way she closed her eyes, if she closed them at all, if there was a flutter to her eyelashes or a stern set of her brow, all of that determined everything that was to follow. Jana’s job as first violinist was to lead, but these days her leadership had expanded beyond the physical. Her bodily and tonal decisions, one after another after another through an entire forty-minute program, now served as emotional leadership.
The power in this was both benevolent and wicked, and, to Jana, felt perfectly natural. She had always wanted to truly lead a group—and better still, to lead a group to greatness. It had to happen, it would happen, its future happening defined her. And where, in this narrative of greatness, was there room for a story of love? It wasn’t any story she’d ever been told.
From The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Aja Gabel.
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