Kalotay’s soulful second novel chronicles the collateral damage three classical musicians inflict on the people who love them.
Merging two inherently incompatible modes of expression, writing and music, presents a formidable challenge—one Kalotay rises to admirably here. Even tone-deaf readers will readily grasp the technical aspects of violinist Remy’s struggles to attain the first chair that seems forever beyond her reach. Likewise, readers will understand why composer and conductor Nicholas, although he attains a certain level of fame and prosperity (enough to incite the envy of his best friend and colleague Yoni), can never complete his masterwork. Nicholas, Remy and Yoni all teach or study at a prestigious Boston conservatory, and Remy will later play with the Boston Symphony. In their insular world, impulses that defy musical expression are, too often, deployed to wreak havoc in others’ lives. Remy’s infatuation with Nicholas breaks up his marriage to art historian Hazel, and though Remy will help co-parent Jessie, child of Hazel and Nicholas, her desire for a child of her own will lead to a disastrous interlude with Yoni that will prove life-altering for all three musicians. The book revisits the characters at 10-year intervals and thus becomes a meditation on aging, regret and forgiveness. The plainspoken prose is the ideal accompaniment to these lives, but the characterization of the women is more detailed and grounded. Nicholas’ passivity—he is more acted upon than active in shaping his own destiny—and solipsism—the way he can inflict hurt on Remy and Hazel without, seemingly, noticing or caring—is particularly confounding: Why is he the focus of so much yearning? By the time Hazel and Remy realize that Nicholas is an exaltation of style over substance, each is compelled to delude herself that the years they invested in him were not wasted.
Unfortunately, just when the motifs of cognitive dissonance and self-deception are about to deliver a fitting climax, the piece resolves with an anodyne coda of unearned redemption.