The Ensemble by Aja Gabel follows a string quartet through approximately 20 years of musical partnership.
Henry, the most effortlessly talented of the group, seems to take both his talent and his life in casual stride. Jana is prickly, headstrong, and ambitious. Daniel has a chip on his shoulder and treats people with disdain. Brit is winsome, lonely, and love lorn.
Their relationships with one another are complicated. Henry and Jana have a strange, codependent friendship. Brit and Daniel have a relationship that’s casual but still stifling to Daniel and a crushing case of unrequited love for Brit.
Their lives are messy. Their dedication to their crafts leaves a lack of intimacy with other people. They go through phases of liking, loving, and hating each other. They grow up and move through varying phases of adulthood. Parenthood, relationships, career aspirations, career obstacles.
They come of age somewhat sloppily.
But when they play, the outside world becomes background noise, lost to the beautiful music of their instruments.
I had the same feeling of awe with Kayla Rae Whitaker’s excellent book, The Animators. Her characters are incredibly flawed, but when you see them practicing their crafts, man do they soar. It’s exhilarating to imagine that beautiful harmony, played with skill and precision so fine that even their breaths are synchronized.
It’s a tough feat, to so richly describe music/sound through the silent experience of reading. But Gabel does it. James Baldwin accomplishes the same thing in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” The imagery is so rich. And it perfectly shows someone who is somewhat lost in life, but perfectly at home inside the notes. Read it free here. https://genius.com/James-baldwin-sonnys-blues-annotated
Luckily, you don’t have to just imagine the music. Aja Gabel created a Spotify playlist with all of the pieces mentioned in the book. Listen to it here.
The book is a change of pace for me. I’ve been on a thriller kick lately, with fast-paced plots and gritty grifters. This is a lovely chance to slow down and get lost in the music.
Published May 2018
Watch this book review of The Ensemble and other videos on my Read Remark youtube / booktube channel.
Music credit: musopen.com
Danse sacree et danse profane – 2. Danse Profane by Claude Debussy, performed by United States Marine Band