Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
By Aja Gabel
352 pp. Riverhead Books.
Taking a step back to look at the entirety of life is to extricate oneself from the chaos of details. Nevertheless, the peculiarities of friendships, the finer points of relationships, and the particularities of our lives are far more interesting than its whole. The Ensemble dissects the lives of four musicians as they go through their 20s and 30s as members of a string quartet, as friends, as lovers, as daughters, as sons, and as parents. Jana, the first violinist and de facto leader, is, to say the least, ambitious. The way she carries herself belies the past she tries hard to change. Henry, the violist, is the prodigy. Everything comes easy for him except making decisions about his future. Brit, the second violinist, is the romantic. Her parents had a great marriage and she desires nothing more than a fairy tale romance. Daniel, the cellist, is the pragmatic underdog. He takes multiple jobs to sustain his career but always finds himself at the short end of the stick. Together, their hopes and fears, their passions and indifferences, their depths and pettiness collide and connect, just as music disrupts and harmonizes.
The most recognizable element of the book is its clear and honest language. The author articulates pain and frustration with complete candor. The four lead characters are all going through indecisions and moments of denial – prime candidates for a sincere and impartial appraisal. I had to stop reading to take a deep breath as some of her descriptions are too close to home. Honest language is not coarse but rather simple and to the point. Nothing jolts our senses than pointing out our mistakes in plain language.
Split into four parts, we first meet Jana, Henry, Brit, and Daniel as they prepare for the Esterhazy competition. Placing first means opening up opportunities for the struggling string quartet. Jana and Brit hit the notes and their minds meander to other thoughts and ideas and the readers are introduced to each member of the quartet. The succeeding chapters are all set in either a chamber music competition or in a concert. But the performances play second fiddle once the characters start thinking and reflecting about themselves. I sometimes forget the setting of each chapter until it reminds me in the end. Chamber music competition is a cutthroat business in itself but understanding the estrangement of the characters to their parents or dipping into their relationships is far more interesting.
To say the four characters have different upbringings and contrasting personalities is an understatement. The ambition of Jana is rooted in her need to change her past. Her success, she admits, hinges on Henry. The prodigious talent of Henry is a source of both admiration and resentment. His indecision about his future, to go solo or not, puts the future of the group in uncertainty. The single-minded need of Daniel to earn money is obviously a result of his financial standing. Playing alongside the rich and naturally-gifted Henry is nothing but painful. The aspiration of Brit to find the perfect relationship partner is grounded on the marriage of her parents. But she pines for Daniel and his priorities do not include commitment. The author created detailed characters and brought their development to places no one expects.
I admire all the choices the author made from its language to its structure. But its biggest asset is its characters. Precarious is a description that encapsulates the thread of friendship connecting each member of the quartet. It felt like the four characters are all teetering at the edge of a cliff – one unkind thought and their group crumbles. The author masterfully pulled the right strings in orchestrating the conflicts that altered the development of the characters and the plot itself. I also commend her self-control. The temptation to make incessant musical analogies to depict the intricacies of friendship is strong. But she is stronger than the temptation. The currency of a strong friendship, any relationship for that matter, is honesty. The Ensemble is an honest book about friendship and I cannot recommend highly enough.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel will be available soon at Fully Booked. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowana.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]