cover image The Ensemble

The Ensemble

Aja Gabel. Riverhead, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1476-7

Gabel’s wonderful debut centers on the talented members of the Van Ness String Quartet over the course of the 18 event-filled years following 1994. There’s Jana, violin 1, the natural leader; Henry, viola, the prodigy; Daniel, cello, the charming one who brings intensity to the group; and Brit, violin 2, the unknown quantity. They’ve slept with one another (Jana and Henry, Daniel and Brit) and are battered and bruised by the competition circuit. But, over the years, they stay together in the face of professional temptations (Henry is encouraged to make a solo recital debut), dueling egos (Jana incurs Henry’s jealousy when she sleeps with another violinist), rivalries (Daniel is intimidated by the members of a younger quartet), injuries, and bad judgment. Along the way, they also manage to become husbands, wives, and parents. But despite all these distractions, the love of making music is what keeps Jana and the others imperfectly bound to one another. Seldom has a novel managed to better dramatize the particular pressures that make up the life of a professional musician, from the physical pain of contorting limbs over a long period of time to the emotional stress of constantly making adjustments to the changing temperaments of partners. Readers will come away with a renewed appreciation for things people usually take for granted when listening to music. The four characters are individually memorable, but as a quartet they’re unforgettable.