Monday, 3rd December 2001, 8:27pm
An opinion by: Nette
 An Equal Music

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

I am saving Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy for a rainy day - or should I say a rainy year? It is 1600 pages of intense cinematic plot that caused me to have vivid dreams of India the first time I began to read it, so I stopped. When I heard there was a new release by Seth that was only 400 pages long and treated the subject of musicians (hence an invaded dreamscape would blend with my own universe and could go unnoticed), I clicked and bought it immediately.

It is what they promised, a book that treats the world of music realistically and includes all the nuances of power struggles, artistic crises, ego and glory. Those were the segments I gobbled up, all the interplay between the members of a string quartet. They gang up on one another, gossip, argue and do all the sneaky, tiresome things real musicians do but the saving grace is their unified, inspired performance, also nicely described. Trying to describe music without sounding like an overbearing press kit is a challenge Vikram Seth conquers pretty well.

And it is a sympathetic portrayal of the instability of a musical life - what happens when you've been playing a borrowed instrument and the owner may reclaim it at any time? Also very poignant is a scene at an auction, where the violins are priced beyond reach of the musicians - much angst and nail-biting there.

So right, I enjoyed all that - a portrayal of musical anxiety that made me cry yes! That's it! Where I didn't relate properly was with our mysterious, evasive heroine. While certain aspects of her personality are very well presented (won't say what they are since a bit of suspense is contained in that detail), I really just couldn't see what all the fuss was about - why she particularly inspired this long-suffering, everlasting love from the hero. Maybe that is because I'm a girl so relating to an idealized woman requires more detail than I found here. She wasn't especially anything much except nostalgic and unattainable. I dunno, I think in books by women I don't mind so much when the men are distant and vague (I'm thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept) but here I just kept wanting to shake our hero and yell snap out of it! Get yourself a real girl! I enjoyed his French student much more, for example, but maybe that was just because her Franglais was written so brilliantly eg. "Beethoven writes down a, how do you say, a humoristical appreciation that the amateur's horrible arrangement was a quintet in three voices, and Beethoven has made it properly into five voices, and converted it from a big miserability to a presentable aspect."

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