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An Equal Music [Paperback]

Vikram Seth
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 13 2000
On one level, this is a story about love; the love of a woman lost and found and lost again. A chance sighting on a London bus, a letter that should never have been read, a pianist with a secret that touches the heart of her music: from a multiplicity of details, Vikram Seth creates, once again, a living, breathing world that enchants and grips the reader. This is also a book about music and about how the love of music can run like a passionate theme through a life.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The violinist hero of Vikram Seth's third novel would very much like to be hearing secret harmonies. Instead, living in London 10 years after a key disaster, Michael Holme is easily irritated by his beautiful young (and even French!) girlfriend and by his colleagues in the Maggiore Quartet. In short, he's fed up with playing second fiddle in life and art. Yet a chance encounter with Julia, the pianist he had loved and lost in Vienna, brings Michael sudden bliss. Her situation, however--and the secret that may end her career--threatens to undo the lovers.

An Equal Music is a fraction of the size of Seth's A Suitable Boy, but is still deliciously expansive. In under 400 pages, the author offers up exquisite complexities, personal and lyrical, while deftly fielding any fears that he's composed a Harlequin for highbrows. During one emotional crescendo, Michael tells Julia, "I don't know how I've lived without you all these years," only to realize, "how feeble and trite my words sound to me, as if they have been plucked out of some housewife fantasy." In addition to the pitch of its love story, one of the book's joys lies in Seth's creation of musical extremes. As the Maggiore rehearses, moving from sniping and impatience to perfection, the author expertly notates the joys of collaboration, trust, and creation. "It's the weirdest thing, a quartet," one member remarks. "I don't know what to compare it to. A marriage? a firm? a platoon under fire? a self-regarding, self-destructive priesthood? It has so many different tensions mixed in with its pleasures."

An Equal Music is a novel in which the length of Schubert's Trout Quintet matters deeply, the discovery of a little-known Beethoven opus is a miracle, and each instrument has its own being. Just as Michael can't hope to possess Julia, he cannot even dream of owning his beloved Tononi, the violin he has long had only on loan. And it goes without saying that Vikram Seth knows how to tell a tale, keeping us guessing about everything from what the Quartet's four-minute encore will be to what really occasioned Julia's departure from Michael's life. (Or was it in fact Michael who abandoned Julia?) As this love story ranges from London to Michael's birthplace in the north of England to Vienna to Venice, few readers will remain deaf to its appeals. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Seth finds his true voice in this lyrical, ravishing tale of star-crossed loversAan English violinist and the pianist he desperately pursues. Unlike his previous work, A Suitable Boy (a 1349-page family melodrama set in 1950s India and self-consciously modeled on the social novels of Dickens, Trollope and Eliot), this novel is tightly controlled, original in design, awash in the musicAand spiritAof Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Brahms and Bach. Even readers not familiar with specific pieces of Western classical music will be caught up in the contemporary love story, set mainly in London and Vienna with excursions to Venice and northern England. Michael Holme, brooding member of an English string quartet, endlessly adrift a decade after breaking up with pianist Julia McNicholl, suddenly bumps into her again in London. They resume their affairAwith guilty reluctance on her part, as she's married to an American banker and has a son, but with reckless abandon by Michael, who betrays and then ditches his girlfriend, a needy French violin student 15 years his junior. Beyond mere erotic duplicities, a far more tragic obstacle emergesAJulia is rapidly going deaf. Music, her lifeblood, is slipping away from her, a secret she keeps from her fellow musicians until Michael clumsily reveals it. Around this simple plot, Seth weaves an exploration of the creative process as he delves into the quartet members' quirks and neuroses, their romances, states of exaltation, their synchronous vision. All the rehearsals, shoptalk, fiddling and ruminations blunt the impact of Julia's tragedy and the love story's momentum, but Seth's musical, quicksilver prose keeps the narrative aloft. It's a classy novel, told with keen intelligence and sensitivity, embodying a brave attempt to fathom the world of deafness as well as the high-strung milieu of performing artists. $150,000 ad/promo; author tour; simultaneous audio; rights sold in Denmark, France, Germany, India, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Compelling musicians, stock character lovers May 22 2002
By A Customer
The most interesting relationship in "An Equal Music" is not Michael and his long-lost love Julia, but Michael and the Maggiore Quartet. Vikram Seth does a fine job capturing the complicated interactions of the quartet's members: the ego clashes, the artistic disagreements, the ability to create transforming music. From the rehearsals to the searches for the perfect instrument, Seth is able to create a compelling picture of the life of these musicians.
Unfortunately, his portrayal of the relationship between Michael and Julia is not nearly so successful. There's certainly no joy in their love. Julia never seems like a real woman, just a sad and beautiful image. It's never clear why Julia, having made a new life after Michael seemed to abandon her, jeopardizes that life to be with him again. As for Michael, he becomes more self-pitying and cruel as the affair progresses. He feels no guilt about the affair but he can't embrace the moment either. Eventually the whole thing just becomes tiresome.
The love affair feels like it was written by rote. Seth is clearly far more interested in the life of the musicians and it shows.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An astonishing tale. April 11 2002
Vikram Seth has produced another remarkable feat, varying his writing style so dramatically you never think it was the same author who wrote "A Suitable Boy". In this his second major work he considers the life of an English violinist who is a member of a quartet playing chamber music. How Seth can witch from the life of people in India with all of its poverty, joy, humour and life's challenges, to the this altogether different story is completely unfathomable. "A Suitable Boy" always contained a hidden undertone of humour, a sort of subtle wit underlying the story whereas this story is sad, often tragic and sometimes pathetic telling how love is gained and lost, gained and lost again. Suffering of personal magnitude with all of its contradictory thoughts, illusions and fantasies is so well brought out its not hard to get caught in the saga.
The musician has lost his love who he met while studying under a hard taskmaster, his own troubles with his teacher alienate her until he just leaves. Ten years later he meets her again although she is now married, has a child and is progrssively going deaf. He still loves her as does she him, longing and pain of past memories as well as the suffering of not being with the one you love fill this book. They love and meet each other only to have to lie to their friends and husbands. Eventually she can't take the suffering and it comes to a sad end although his own personal journey is not yet complete until he open that door which allows suffering to be felt but not held on to.
In addition to the story itself which is told with real feeling, there is the music which permeates the story almost as much as the love between the two who are both musicians.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly entertaining Nov. 5 2001
Given that I've read Seth's other novels ("The Golden Gate" and "A Suitable Boy") and was disappointed by both, I wasn't expecting a great deal from "An Equal Music". But it surprised me in that I was taken by the story from the start and I read it very quickly. The only large problems I had with it were where Seth's prose became too self-indulgent, and the times when he lapsed into poetry for no good reason. Yet withal I enjoyed the book.
The story centres on the violinist Michael Holme, a member of the troubled Maggiore Quartet, and his attempts to re-establish his relationship with his old love from student days, Julia. The early part of the novel deals with Michael's re-discovery of Julia (but what is her secret?), with the tensions between the members of the Quartet, and as a sub-plot Michael's detective work to find the recording and score of a "lost" piece by Beethoven. I thought that Seth handled these interconnected stories very well, weaving them together skillfully so that I was turning pages quickly, wanting to know the outcome of those stories.
Given the setting of the novel and the characters Seth depicts, you have to accept that there is inevitably a large element of preciousness and pretension both within the story and the characters. I could see that this will irritate some readers, but what is also there is the vulnerability and frailty of the people, which evokes sympathy.
I thought that the story lost pace in the middle passages, set in Vienna and Venice. Seth tended to overdo the Venetian bits in particular (use of Venice as a backdrop has been done so many times before and so much better - for example in Barry Unsworth's "Stone Virgin" - why couldn't somewhere else have been used?). These parts descend into a sugary style reminiscent of the foul movie "Truly, Madly, Deeply". Yet for all that, Seth did pull the story round in the later parts of the novel.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Some musics are more equal Aug. 13 2001
Vikram Seth's attempt at combining the anatomy of a string quartet with a musical romance is a very mixed bag, to say the least. Bringing his poetic language to prose, he does own a very idiosyncratic and sometimes powerful way to convey emotions and combine them with the beautiful and vivid images of places like London, the small town of Rochdale, Vienna and Venice. The parts of the book dedicated to the string quartet and the musical and personal aspects of it is interesting, even if at times too artificially "learned", as in someone who really did his homework well, in this case, studying the most minute details of chamber music playing - and making sure that everyone understand that. The weakest aspects of this book, at times truly appalling, are the sticky romance with Julia, the pianist with a secret, and the personality of Michael, the narrator himself. One might think that there would be a true tension, or symbiosis, or clash, or whatever, between the two emotional sides of Michael's love - Music Making and Julia. Well, not really. It's a story of obsessive love, and quite an egocentric and intrusive one, which becomes more and more irritating as one reads further on. At the end, the self pity and emotional blindness is so exhausting that it's hard to emotionally follow the fate of Michael. I wish I could enjoy it more, especially after hearing a reading of parts of the book by Seth himself here in St. Paul. Ugh.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars "Music is dearer to me even than speech"
... explains Vikram Seth in the "Author's note" to this engrossing novel. His intimate connection to music and the process of bringing it to life is palpable throughout the book. Read more
Published on Oct. 13 2008 by Friederike Knabe
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb creation of character emotions & visual descriptions
Having received this book & knowing nothing of its author, I was amazed at the intricate pattern & story that this book is. Read more
Published on Jan. 22 2002 by tamzin
5.0 out of 5 stars Lovely book
I agree completely with the Sollami review below. These characters live their lives with great intensity, and great beauty. Read more
Published on Dec 18 2001 by M. Van Cleve
4.0 out of 5 stars excellent
Beautifully crafted, Vikram Seth's writing is virtuostic. I don't much care for sentimental stories, but this one is delightful to read.
Published on Nov. 30 2001
1.0 out of 5 stars Equal to Boredom
Classical music, romance--sounded divine. With the premise of the novel, I thought surely it would be placed on my list of great literary loves, hence I bought the hardcover. Read more
Published on Nov. 18 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars A Symphony of a Story
This is another masterpiece from the pen of Indian born Vikram Seth; a beautiful romantic novel centred on a man's lost love which he hopes to reawaken. Read more
Published on July 29 2001 by binnsie
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, tender, tale of love. Exquisite.
The basic plot of this novel by Vikram Seth is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again but with this simple story the author has constructed (perhaps composed... Read more
Published on July 16 2001 by Mr. A. Jehangir
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, tender, tale of love. Exquisite.
The basic plot of this novel by Vikram Seth is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again but with this simple story the author has constructed (perhaps composed... Read more
Published on July 16 2001 by Mr. A. Jehangir
2.0 out of 5 stars Harlequin For Highbrows
I was SO disappointed with this book. I was looking forward to reading it, especially as many reviews compared it to Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" (both... Read more
Published on June 11 2001 by Robert Carter
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