A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.

THE MUSIC BOOK

A young woman attempts to enter the elite and mainly male world of professional classical musicians during the 1950s in this literary novel.

In 1953, cellist Irena “Reenie” Siesel has just graduated from a conservatory. There, she’d been called gifted, exceptional even, but so far she’s only had offers for teaching positions—a path reserved for those unworthy of performing for a living. Making it as a performer is particularly hard for a woman because, as one female musician puts it, “the problem with women performers was they lacked the single-minded devotion necessary to sacrifice everything to their instruments.” Then Reenie gets a call out of the blue to replace the cellist of the Modern Strings, an avant-garde New York ensemble, at a music festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The group will play a selection of pieces, “from the Baroques to the moderns,” culminating in a new work by the ensemble’s difficult but brilliant leader, composer Arthur Cohen. During the four-day festival, Reenie attempts to navigate the tense, interpersonal dynamics of the Modern Strings while learning the material and demonstrating her talent and professionalism. After all, she may be invited at the end of the festival to join the group and move to New York, where the real musicians live. Reenie’s future with the ensemble quickly becomes complicated when, against her better judgment, she sleeps with Cohen in a fit of impulse—losing her virginity. Interspersed with her account of that weekend are scenes from decades later, when Reenie is in the memory unit of an assisted living facility. She receives a composition left by Cohen in his will—a work that he planned to have destroyed if she died before him. Her daughter and Cohen’s niece are arranging a performance in the hopes it will jog Reenie’s failing memory—but are these recollections worth recovering?

Osborn writes with incredible polish and subtlety, toggling between Reenie’s lush, moment-to-moment accounts from the ’50s and retrospective appraisals of the era: “The festival in Newport took place at a time when classical music was at its height in America, with Leonard Bernstein’s orchestra program and large concert audiences. Just ten years later, the audiences would shrink dramatically, but now no one knew that future.” The characters—particularly Reenie but also the demanding Arthur and the ensemble’s messy violinist Charles Breedlove and aloof violist Patrick Dempsey—are deftly rendered, and the author manages to capture seemingly every shifting tension in each relationship. Osborn also succeeds in writing about music in a way that elucidates and elevates an art form that is not easily put into words, particularly the ways in which the members of the group play together. The plot moves slowly, but it quickly teaches readers to appreciate its rhythm, which—like the sea that surrounds the festival location—is somewhat tidal. The narrative is unexpectedly suspenseful, particularly once readers have a grasp of the intensity of the personalities involved. The result is a meditation on art, aspiration, jealously, and selfishness, all placed against the backdrop of gender and shifting trends in the mid-20th-century classical music scene.

A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.

Pub Date: May 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-60489-250-5

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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