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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

An Equal Music

Vikram Seth

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To purchase An Equal Music

Title: An Equal Music
Author: Vikram Seth
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 336 pages
Availability: An Equal Music - US
An Equal Music - UK
An Equal Music - Canada
Quatuor - France
Verwandte Stimmen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent touches, but too melodramatic and too earnest.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 15/5/1999 .
The Guardian C+ 3/4/1999 Paul Bailey
Hindustan Times A 17/4/1999 Khushwant Singh
The Independent B- 4/4/1999 William Sutcliffe
Literary Review B 4/1999 Caroline Moore
Newseek C 3/5/1999 Carla Powers
The New Yorker C 7/6/1999 David Denby
The NY Rev. of Books D 15/7/1999 Tim Parks
The NY Times Book Rev. C 13/6/1999 Nicholas Christopher
The Observer C+ 28/3/1999 Adam Mars-Jones
Salon B+ 13/5/1999 Akash Kapur
The Sunday Times A+ 28/3/1999 John Carey
Time (Asia) B+ 24/5/1999 Meenakshi Ganguly
Time C 31/5/1999 Elizabeth Gleick
The Times A- 1/4/1999 Claire Messud

  Review Consensus:

  Sappy -- though opinions vary widely as to whether this a good or a fatal thing. Everyone agrees the music is handled well, otherwise no consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "An Equal Music is almost unbearably sudsy, a huge disappointment for the legions of A Suitable Boy fans waiting to see what magic Seth could possibly spin next." - Elizabeth Gleick, Time

  • "(...) high on charm, wit and affectionate characterisation, low on novelty and narrative trickery (...) An Equal Music is ultimately too simple." - William Sutcliffe, The Independent

  • "Failed novels about musicians would make quite a tidy stack, with Thomas Mann's unreadable Doctor Faustus at its base. However, we need not have worried. Seth's novel is a wonder-work: irresistible, tense, deeply moving." - John Carey, The Sunday Times

  • "As a love letter to the canon of classical music, Seth's novel has a touching fervency, but as a novel it's something of a non-starter." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Mr Seth offers emotional sensitivity of the rarest order and a poignancy that invites an almost painful sympathy." - The Economist

  • "An Equal Music is an object lesson in the dangers of clinging too close to the tremors of pure sensibility." - David Denby, The New Yorker

  • "(...) when it comes to people -- to the specific personal and professional interrelationships within the quartet -- the novel falters." - Nicholas Christopher, The New York Times Book Review

  • "However eager to entrance us Seth may be, derivative artifice of the kind he is deploying here seems no more than a tiresome literary exercise. If the story does matter to him, he hasn't found a convincing way of conveying it." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "(I)t leaves the reader also feeling trapped, frustrated, and uncertain of his or her sympathies. (.....) (A) frustrating, patchy, but deeply fascinating novel." - Caroline Moore, Literary Review

  • "(O)ne of the most moving love stories you will ever read." - Khushwant Singh, Hinudstan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Well, it is not as long as A Suitable Boy, and not as broad. As in Seth's previous novel the sections are subdivided into short mini-chapters, making it a readable, episodic, easily digested work (as was the case, we found, with A Suitable Boy).
       It is an unusual story -- or perhaps it just seems that way because Seth does not make it particularly believable. Michael Holme, second violinist with the Maggiore Quartet, finds the love he lost ten years earlier, the now married pianist Julia. They had been madly in love when they were both studying in Vienna, but Michael had up and left, and though he recognized what he lost (after the fact) he had been unable to get in touch with her again until finally their paths cross in London.
       Their love, which apparently never died, is rekindled. She travels to Vienna with him and his quartet to accompany them as a pianist. Michael and Julia travel to Venice. She is torn between her old love and her family (she not only has a husband, but a seven year old son, and a dog). Fate has its way with them. Oh, right, and it turns out that -- tragedy of tragedies for a musician -- she has gone practically stone deaf over the past years (though she has become a damn good lip reader).
       Melodramatic indeed. Fairly mellow, too, though less dramatic. Seth generally writes well enough to sustain interest in his sappy story, but he does try too hard for the poetic generalization now and then. There are other, more serious problems with the novel. His characters are incredibly flat. We could hardly tell the quartet members apart until well into the book. One is a woman, one is gay, one has a family, one composes on the side, one is loud and opinionated -- that is pretty much all we learn about them. Their conversations, when not about music, are almost singularly uninformative, and their backgrounds and history is largely glossed over as belonging to an unspeakable past. Dialogue dominates the book, but in this and all regards it almost always seems just slightly off.
       Worse is that the central relationship, between Michael and Julia, does not truly come alive. The story is narrated by Michael and he tells the reader of his deep and profound love, but it does not entirely convince. We never really understand why they broke up in the first place, though his running off is constantly being brought up. Julia, tragically deafened, also remains flat, even as the subject of his passion. Her choice -- Michael or family -- is only superficially explored, presented instead as now she loves him, now she doesn't. The bed-hopping in fiction is often unrealistic, but Julia's initial jump here when they are reunited seems so without foundation that we found it difficult to empathize with either of them. If she were besotted with Michael we might understand, or if she were a real hussy, but she is neither. She is meant to be simply in love, but love is never this simple.
       More unfortunate still is Michael who acts and acts out annoyingly, as well as succumbing to attacks of nerves at significant moments (making him seem even more of a weakling than he already is -- not at all offset by his seemingly forced attacks on authority). We have some sympathy for his great love, but he ruins it so often with his petty actions that we did not care all that much how it turned out for him. His and Julia's love never truly seemed a love that had to be.
       The deaf angle is a bit annoying, and certainly unlikely, but we'll give Seth that. Certainly he does quite well with the music in the book, blending it in, rarely going on at too great a length (though non-musicians might find a bit too much information on retuning the lowest string on violins and violas for their taste). The pieces chosen (especially one chosen for a record deal) are interesting and fairly well explained, though Seth sticks to a very conservative classical canon.

       The message of the novel, it seems to us, is that art -- be it music, poetry, or fiction -- is as great, as deep, as true, as important as love, and can be as redeeming. This is, of course, absurd. Seth, who often succeeds with his art, fails in conjuring up the human counterparts to guide his fiction, and the art he falls back on is insufficient to redeem or convince. That is certainly the greatest failing of An Equal Music. There are artists who can sustain a work without peopling it, but Seth's art, though competent, is not high enough to do this. (The competing true love in the book, Michael's violin, is an interesting idea (and by and large more believable than his mindless obsession with Julia), but ultimately does not satisfy either.)
       An Equal Music is a decent enough light read, and for those without too much ambition and some time to fill we can certainly recommend it as a divertissement. Sadly, it is a flawed romance.

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An Equal Music: Reviews: Vikram Seth: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Vikram Seth, born in Calcutta in 1952, has lived and or studied in India, England, the United States, and China. He has written several volumes of poetry, the novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate, and the massive (and popular) tome, A Suitable Boy.

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