I am not musical, nor do I know one whit more about the world of music than I learned (and promptly forgot) during recorder lessons in elementary school. Or if you'd like a more recent musical lesson, during my reading of the exquisite An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. I am also not political, and while I do have some knowledge of the Chechen situation, I live a pretty insular life so my understanding of said situation is sketchy at best. These two holes in my cultural/political knowledge did not bode well for this book right off the bat.
This is the story of internationally acclaimed, rising star pianist, Isabel Merton. She travels all over Europe for her concerts but she is adrift and rootless, having left her husband shortly before the tour series. But then she is introduced to a man who is exiled from Chechnya and who tells her he is trying to get support for the exiled government. When he continues to show up at her concerts, they fall into an affair. Isabel dutifully trots along to political meetings where she understands nothing, not only because she doesn't speak the language but because she can't recognize zealotry even when it swirls in the very air surrounding her. Meanwhile, she also continues to call home to her excessively accomodating husband (ex-husband?) and to use up all his good psychic energy in an effort to stay on an even keel herself.
While I didn't understand much that was musical here (as admitted above), I did recognize and dislike the stereotypically narcissistic artist, the center of her own narrow, very specialized world. Despite being a book ostensibly fueled by passion, the descriptions were cold-blooded and I didn't truly believe that the affair was a consuming thing that could only be subsumed to causes even greater than love. Actually, I saw precious little love of any sort in this unless zealotry counts. I would have loved to see real passion rather than wavering insularity. This was a lot of florid philosophizing coupled with tepid characters.
The plot builds to a predictable crescendo but the question is whether I cared at all. And the short answer was no. By that time I already wanted to quit reading. Yes. Me. The compulsive reader who finishes every book she starts. Reading this made for a painful reading experience. I was bored out of my gourd. I don't mind being stretched. I even enjoy being stretched. Hell, I cheerfully signed on for many extra years of school simply for the joy of books, reading, and learning. But this book, this book was brutal. Its cardinal sin? I was bored. Certainly other people disagree with me as the book is a WNBA Great Group Read this year, but in all honesty, of all the reading groups I've been in over the years, from pretentious literary groups to light beachy read groups, there's not a one to which I'd recommend this book. It sucked the very life out of me and briefly extinguished the joy of reading.
Thanks (I think) to The Other Press for sending me a review copy of this book.