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An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

An Equal Music (1999)

by Vikram Seth

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‘An Equal Music’ is told in the first person, in the present tense, by a musician called Michael. He plays second violin in a prestigious string quartet. The people he is closest to, emotionally, are the other members of the quartet. He has an on-off affair going with a rather younger student, but can never forget his first love, the brilliant pianist Julia, whom he has not seen for nearly ten years….

There are many subplots; flashbacks and commentary about the past, a trip for the quartet to both Austria and Italy, the discovery of some little-known music, a recording contract, and many rehearsals where we see intimately into the way the lives of a quartet are intertwined.

It’s a powerful novel of love and loss, of friendship and betrayal, and - above all - of music. It’s draining at times, and also uplifting. By the end, I could barely put it down. The ending comes suddenly, after rather too much rhetoric (in my view) and didn’t quite tie up all the ends, but perhaps that was deliberate.

Although the writing is fluid and the story well-paced, I found the characters oddly flat. Michael is believable enough, highly emotional and rather volatile. But others are caricatured, or non-entities, including the woman who becomes the main romantic lead. Her motivations are never very clear.

Some of the music terminology went over my head, but that wasn’t a problem. I had more of an issue with sections that were over-wordy, and seemed irrelevant. Some parts could, in my view, have been cut entirely without any loss to the novel - unless, perhaps, they were included to show Michael’s confused and sometimes wandering mind.

Still, it was different from anything I've read before and oddly gripping in places. ( )
  SueinCyprus | Jan 26, 2016 |
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 Vienna - just an all-round great book! #EqualMusic #VikramSeth ( )
  PennyAnne | Oct 2, 2014 |
I have mixed opinions towards this book. The story draws up some attention: a violinist meets a pianist for whom he was deeply in love in the past and the flames of passion once again begin to burn within his heart, yet too much has changed since then. Now this pianist is married and leads a happy life with her family. Alas, she holds a secret that will change their lives forever.

The beginning of the book is excellent. Seth manages to richly describe musical experiences and you can see that the guy did a lot of research about every single topic he brought up: classics, the relationship between musicians in quartets, the beauty of the instruments and the process. And the best part: the descriptions are not tiring. They're full of poetry and romance and colors. Still, the book gets tiring not because of the descriptions or the somewhat cliche plot, but because of the repetitive characters. I didn't mind the sad ending. What really bothered me is that Michael, the main character, is annoying. No matter how much of a dreamer a person can be, I seriously do not believe someone can be so angsty and dramatic and repetitive as him. It's almost like he actually enjoys suffering. And his beloved one, the pianist Julia seems to always be stuck in the indecision and ends up making the stupidest, coldest, emptiest decisions ever. She seems to be a puppet of her own self-piety rather than a "fighter". Now join both main characters and their lack of objectivity and you'll have one of the most circular, boring love stories ever. The progress of their relationship (if any) is painfully slow and seems to go nowhere.

Well, at least the other characters were pretty nice. I found that the Maggiore Quartet was really lovely and tolerant and human.

In other words, the book had a pretty nice beginning. Too bad it wasn't able to keep up with it for the rest of the story. ( )
  aryadeschain | Aug 26, 2014 |
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 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. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Mar 10, 2014 |
I’ve had An Equal Music left unread on my bookshelf for a number of years. I bought the hardback for 30 pence at a sale in a library. I bought it mainly because the cover was nice (yep, judging a book by its cover), it was a hardback and it was only 30p.

An Equal Music is a wonderful book of love won and lost. The book is written in the first person as Michael Holmes, our main character, narrates his life and experiences. We read about how he walked out on the love of his life, Julia, in Vienna where they both lived and studied. Ten years later, Michael is living and working in London and is part of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He thinks of Julia daily and dwells upon the regret of leaving her years ago. One day, Michael spots Julia on a bus in London having never thought he would see her again. Michael embarks on a mission to find her and win her love once again.

This is the first book I have read by Vikram Seth. I had heard of A Suitable Boy which seems to have been a heavyweight contender in book awards. I have to say having read An Equal Music I do love how he writes and I read the book quite quickly (for me that is!). Seth has a wonderful ability of conjuring up sights, smells and emotions. From the beauty of Venice to the cultural cities of Vienna and London, Seth describes the places wonderfully. A big surprise to me, and nestled within all of this beauty, was the mention of Rochdale and the moors which surround this area, not somewhere which often gets a mention in a major piece of fiction. Michael hails from Rochdale and occasionally goes to visit his father there. When he talks about going back to visit and going out to eat at ‘Owd Betts’, the pub up on the moors, I got rather excited because we go there to eat now and again. They do a very nice cheese and onion pie by the way….

Seth describes the scenery surrounding the pub with a windswept beauty and one which I have forgotten to notice having become so familiar with the area.

There are many, many reviews on this book which seem to provide two very different viewpoints. An Equal Music seems to be a book of Marmite. You’ll either love it or hate it. Most reviewers do love the writing, the story and the character development. However, there are some that find it rather self-indulgent and pompous. This mainly relates to Michael and his obsession around his love for Julia, his need to have her in his life and the effect this has on his behaviour. I can see how people could feel this way and indeed I did think this at several points of the story, that kind of ‘get a grip man!’ feeling. However, I don’t see this as a negative aspect of the book and would even say that Seth has scored a victory in character portrayal if people feel this way. I believe this is integral to the story. As well as bringing joy and happiness, Love can make us selfish, self-indulgent, pitiful and obsessive especially where love has been lost and yet we still desire that person and want to be with them at all costs. Ultimately this is the story which Michael has to tell.

An Equal Music is not really a book I would initially go for. I’m not big on love and romance books however, I do enjoy books on character development, relationships and struggles which Vikram Seth portrays well. All in all a surprisingly good read. ( )
  lilywren | Jan 12, 2014 |
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A chance sighting on a bus; a letter which should never have been read; a pianist with a secret that touches the heart of her music..

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