Book Review: The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
“They were playing now, like they always had. It wasn’t easy. It never had been. It was something like a miracle, all this music, each note a discovery you’ve already made, but it was also maybe the most ordinary thing in the world, to assemble and compose and perform — night after night — a life.”
I have been looking forward to reading The Ensemble for months. It was one of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide picks this year, and Annie Jones from the Bookshelf raved about it. I originally put it on my Summer TBR list, but only now just got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Ensemble by Aja Gabel is about a quartet of classical musicians: Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel. The book spans almost twenty years of the Van Ness quartet. The Ensemble is a story of friendship, love, betrayal, and above all, love of music.
Jana and Brit are the violinists, Henry is the violist, and Daniel is the cellist. Henry, the youngest of the quartet and a child prodigy, is one of the most naturally talented violists the classical music world has ever seen. Daniel, the oldest of the group, grew up poor with a big chip on his shoulder about his talent, but always tries his best to pretend nothing but music matters to him. Jana is the leader of the group, with a very Type A personality and extremely driven. Brit is the second violinist and while she seems like the quiet one, she is the rational one, the glue that holds the group together, diffusing tension between the three other bigger personalities.
The Ensemble starts two years into the group’s existence. The quartet is young and having a rough time getting the recognition they think they deserve. Jana is determined that they will win the coveted Esterhazy competition, but things do not go according to plan the first time around. Daniel and Brit strike up an affair that they keep quiet from Jana and Henry, but Daniel is not interested in anything long-term, so when they end the affair, the group dynamic shifts enough that while they eventually go onto bigger success in the musical world, their personal lives all become even more complicated. As the years go on, relationships fall apart, a few get married, and children come along. But throughout the whole book, the four are all bound to each other and almost always put the group above personal issues.
I really enjoyed this story of friends and colleagues. I admittedly knew nothing about the world of classical music. I had no idea it was that intense, but upon further reflection, it makes sense. Aja Gabel herself is a former cellist, so she writes from personal experience. I love books where you can learn about a different world, and I am now very intrigued by the world of classical music. The hours of practice and the amount of pain some put their bodies through is crazy, but the people who are passionate about classical music are dedicated and driven. And Gabel captures all of that intensity and ambition so perfectly.
If you have any interest in great character studies and/or classical music, give The Ensemble a try. None of the four characters are particularly likable; they often make poor decisions, yet they are human. They experience a whole range of emotions and have plenty of ups and downs, personally and professionally. Gabel’s debut novel is a lovely read, and I’m excited to see what she comes up with next. I enjoyed The Ensemble and give it 4 stars.
What debut novel of 2018 was your favorite?