Book Review: The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

Love is inexact, Henry said. It is not a science. It is barely a noun. It means one thing to one person, and one thing to another. It means one thing to one person at one point and then something else at another point. It doesn’t make sense. We are gathered here today to not make sense. We are gathered here today to listen to the ineffable. I’m supposed to be explaining it, but I can’t explain it. I love you, it’s a mystery. Because it’s a mystery, we have to take care of it. Feed it. It can go missing, but we can’t tie it up. We can only tie it to someone else. Other people. Then the world is like this: full of the geometry of my rope tied to you, and to you, and yours tied to him, and to her, and hers to someone else.

In her debut novel, The Ensemble, Aja Gabel explores the coming of age of a symphonic quartet as they orchestrate their individual growth and personal relationships around the demands of their professional career as a group of accomplished musicians. The Van Ness quartet is composed of the first violinist Jana, cellist Daniel, violist Henry and second violinist Brit- each bringing to the group their exceptional talent and dynamic personalities. As the novel progresses we are brought into each character through individual chapters and begin to understand even more fully how precarious the balance is within this group of four and, beyond all else, how fiercely they love one another.

It was strange in the dark to feel so seen. Jana could barely see Brit, but she could feel her there, breathing hot into the space in that cage, her own body still warm from the embrace. In that absence of actual vision, Jana allowed herself to accept something most people spend their days running from. She stood in the knowledge that there were people who saw the parts of her she did not want to see herself—buffering the nastiness, the desperate quality to her ambition, the tarnished sheen of her past—and that one of these people was standing right in front of her, seeing her be seen. It felt awful, like her skin had been peeled away and whatever was beneath was burning against the cold air. But it also felt like family.

The truest conflict of this novel lies in the struggles each character has to remain committed to the group as personal demands—relationships, children, health and family—threaten to overtake them. Each of the four recognize that the cohesive sound of their music relies heavily on their individual presence, both mentally and emotionally. They understand that when once person fails, they all fail. As they grow older, and their quartet more successful, they must each step back and determine the right course for their life.

She didn’t seem to require an answer. It wasn’t a question. Who knew where this ended? Not him. What he heard in Jana’s statement was not an accusation or confrontation, but a confession: she saw this is the beginning of the quartet’s falling apart.

Written with lyrical prose fitting to a novel with such musical characters, The Ensemble explores the intensity that characterizes the bonds that must be formed within any successful performance group. The demands of professional musicians are seen through the lens of youth as Jana, Henry, Daniel and Brit grow up among their instruments and grow together through their performances into the most divisive and tightly-knit of families.

We found one another nervous and lacking, but we found one another beautiful. We didn’t say it then, but we found each other half blown apart. We found each other ugly in just the right way, though it wouldn’t be right for a long time. We found each other to have good instruments around which we could organize. We found each other to have good hands that were more than just parts of bodies, and good arms and shoulders, and strong spines and stable cores, and supple necks and warm chins. We laid a pervasive claim on one another. On our hearts. Some of us more than others, some of us in different ways. We weren’t yet full people, but we were required to pretend to be. We thought that together we could pretend until we were. We thought that is might not work, but knew there was no way of really knowing.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Riverhead Books

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