Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay

I am not a musician. When I was in elementary school, I played the viola for a while. I was laughingly banished to the back room of the house to practice so I can't possibly have been any good. That my music teacher called my mother when I quit to tell her that I needed to keep at it because I had perfect pitch was, I suspect, more the desperation of a music teacher long deafened by children drawing screechy bows across out of tune strings than any truth about my potential musical talent. I do, however, visibly wince when I hear someone belt out a flat note or have their instrument out of tune so maybe I have squandered untapped natural ability. (Really not likely.) In any case, I do enjoy reading about music, the making of music, and the completely foreign (to me) world of musicians so I was intrigued by Daphne Kalotay's newest novel, Sight Reading, set in the rarified world of classical music.

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.

For more information about Daphne Kalotay and the book check out her website or find her on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I'm adding this one to my reading list - thanks, Kristen!

  2. I would never think to listen to some music while reading a book, but I see why you mentioned that here. I think that would really add to the experience!

    Thanks for being on the tour!


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts