Composed mainly of a small chamber group of characters, lauded conductor and composer Nicholas Elko, his beautiful and accomodating wife Hazel, and the young second chair violin at the conservatory, Remy, the novel explores the quiet dramas of their changing personal lives from young adulthood to late middle age in an exquisite, extended symphony of lives. Opening with Hazel catching sight of Remy after many years, the novel skips back into the past to the beginning of the story, when Nicholas and Hazel were in the early years of their marriage, traveling around the world for Nicholas' promising career as a conductor and doting on preschool-aged daughter Jessie and Remy was simply a student in Nicholas' new student orchestra in Boston. But life keeps on moving, relationships change, marriages fail, and new formations appear as the novel progresses and each of the characters must adjust to the big and the mundane little things of life. At heart, this is a domestic novel wreathed in music and the musical world but not necessarily about music itself.
Throughout the narrative, Nicholas struggles with writing a symphony based in his Scottish childhood; it's to be his magnum opus. In the same way he seeks to capture the events, sights, and sounds from his past, the novel serves as the symphonic rendering of his, Hazel's, and Remy's lives, movement after movement after movement. And each stage of the novel takes a different tone. There is the desperation of Nicholas and Remy's affair and his falling in love with her against his will forcing him to end his marriage. There's the loneliness and fear of being forever alone, of continuing to hurt and feel unwanted, undesirable for so many years, that pervades Hazel's very being, even to the point of manifesting itself on her skin. There's the stagnation and writer's block that drives Nicholas into a wholly different world than the one he inhabits and there's the feeling of neglect and of being taken for granted, of not being included that Remy must fight even in this marriage she won so many years ago.
Deep and yet still common, everyday emotion underlies the whole of the narrative, this tale of divorce and remarriage, of parenting, of shared lives, of music and devotion. It is a subtle rendering and beautifully written. Kalotay has portrayed the world of professional musicians well and she manages to immerse even the unmusical into sound just through words on the page. Just as Remy strengthens her playing through the challenge of sight reading, playing a piece through without having seen or prepared it beforehand, so too must the characters take the challenge of sight reading their way through their lives. And when they each give themselves over to the unpredictability of this, they are in fact strengthened too.
Remy is perhaps the most fully rounded of the characters, the one whose inner life is most interesting. Hazel is almost too good, too blandly effacing, even when she is hurt. Her reaction to Nicholas' cheating and the fact that any ugliness or recriminations from the divorce either don't happen or are hidden in the undocumented, intervening years not in the book, make her seem as conciliatory and placid as Remy assumes she is. Nicholas' character is careless with other peoples' feelings but he comes off as selfish in a rather good natured and unthinking, absent-minded way rather than a considered and deliberate way, not that this fully absolves him. The notes of each characters' life mingles with the others, sometimes breaking out for a soaring solo and other times sublimating to the whole to create a complex, well-written piece about the very ordinariness of love and relationship. I wish I'd had the foresight to listen to some wonderful music as I was reading along so I could have been completely immersed in the world these characters inhabit.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.