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An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
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An Equal Music (1999)

by Vikram Seth

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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 |
A dreamlike novel about music. Chamber music, classical music mostly, with some Mozart and Bach and other non-classicals mixed in (I can never get those straight). It's also the story of a [failed] romance. It's overwhelmingly affecting at one point in particular, near the end, when our narrator (and me, the reader) threatens to be crushed by hopelessness. Significant catharsis is afforded by the ending, however. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
I'm a great Vikram Seth fan, and A Suitable Boy is one of my favourite books. I didn't enjoy this one so much. It's basically a love story, and focuses on a relationship over the course of a few months, with occasional references to the past. It's focused on the meaning of the music, which was a bit lost on me. A lot of it was about the experience of a particular orchestral piece, for instance. It's not that you can't enjoy it if you don't know much about music, but I think you'd enjoy it more if you did. The main reason I didn't like it so much was that I'm not a big fan of stories set in a single place and time and focusing on one or two people. Great ending though - I think Vikram Seth specializes in well-written endings. ( )
  kmstock | Jul 7, 2013 |
This is a beautiful love story and it is a musical tale. The importance of music cannot be emphasized too strongly for, from the title page to the last paragraph music permeates each character. The protagonist, Michael Holme has a spiritual connection with music and with the instrument, a Tononi violin, that he uses to express his music. This goes beyond playing a piece of music, whether Schubert or Bach or Beethoven, and enters his soul and through the prose of Vikram Seth enters the soul of the reader. The description of the music and its effect on various characters was superb. As a musician myself I appreciated the depiction of the canon of classical music (at least the Viennese portion).
The theme of love also transfixes the reader from the opening of the story when Michael is pining for his lost love through the fugue-like complications of his relationship with Julia throughout the novel. The melodrama of the story is overcome by the irresistible tension of their love. The result is a deeply moving narrative that this reader found difficult to set aside. ( )
  jwhenderson | May 15, 2013 |
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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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