Eighteen years in the musical careers and emotional lives of the members of a string quartet.
"Jana and Henry met at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where they'd both been excellent soloists....She'd once witnessed him sight-read Stravinsky on violin while nearly blind drunk, and play it more flawlessly and beautifully than she ever could on a first go." Then Jana and Henry meet Brit and Daniel, and the Van Ness Quartet is born. Gabel's debut opens on the eve of the group's competition for a career-making fellowship in the Canadian Rockies. In a desperate bid to ensure their success, Jana, a girl with an alcoholic mother and a rough upbringing, sleeps with one of the judges. Rotating among the perspectives of the four musicians—Jana, the driven; Henry, the prodigy; Daniel and Brit, the on-again, off-again lovers—we follow the group as they mature as musicians and adults. Not much ever happens, but what little does is analyzed in microscopic detail, via page after page of exposition. For example, Brit and Jana share a comforting embrace. "It occurred to Jana perhaps for the first time why men loved Brit—why people loved Brit: she was able, in a way that most people weren't, to give and receive goodwill. In Jana's whole life, she could not recall ever having been hugged like this. This one was all-encompassing compassion. Brit was an equal planet to Jana, and the two of them were temporarily merging, gravities combining." So much effort to make this unimportant moment important, and to so little effect! On and on it goes—sometimes it feels as if one is reading the author's notes for the book rather than the book itself.
An accomplished rendering of the competitive world of classical music helps balance the less-elegant handling of the characters’ emotional lives.