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3.9 out of 5 stars130
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 2 October 2001
I found this book to be utterly engrossing, the central Love story which winds from Rochdale to Vienna and Venice via London, is beautifully accompanied by the music of the Maggiorre Quartet of which the protagonist is a member. This might not sound like it is to everyone's taste, (my girlfriend questionned my sanity after I recommended it to her), yet I am totally ignorant of classical music, have never visited the geographic settings and I found the story deeply involving. Without wanting to give too much away the story revolves around a passionate relationship which ended 10 years previously in Vienna, and recommences again fitfully in London with dramatic repercussions to both people's lives. My enjoyment of this book, and my girlfriend's dislike of it centres around the central character, and whether you will allow a grown man such a lapse into love and obsession after an affair he left behind so long ago. I was convinced, and thus found it spellbinding, more so than Seth's more celebrated work; 'A Suitable Boy'
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on 9 October 2008
... explains Vikram Seth in the "Author's note" to this engrossing novel. His intimate connection to music and the process of bringing it to life is palpable throughout the book. The story closely follows the ups and downs in the life of violinist Michael Holme and, to a lesser degree, that of the mysterious pianist Julia McNicholl. What makes the story move far beyond a romantic novel is Seth's ability to convey the deep significance of chamber music by no lesser composers than Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert for his characters' psyche and everyday lives. You don't have to be knowledgeable about the music to feel absorbed by this rich, complex and intimate love story. *)

The story, told through Michael's eyes, is mostly set in north London, where he has found refuge after fleeing Vienna, the town of his professional training. Ten years have passed but his musings keep returning to events in Vienna: self-doubts in his talent as a soloist, amplified by the demands of an exacting, overbearing teacher, had resulted in a complete breakdown. His abrupt departure left Julia, his love, music partner and muse, without a word of explanation or good bye. As he slowly recovered, he tried to reconnect with her, wrote, contacted her father, only to meet a wall of silence. Seth's depiction of Michael's continuing emotional immaturity, his increasing despair at having lost what he now recognizes as his great love reveals the fragility of a character where musical brilliance and human weaknesses are interdependent. His solo career seemingly over, Michael joins the Maggiore Quartet as second violin. While in many ways a close knit group - the "family" gives his life the needed structure and support - it also is the source of inter-personal rivalries. The tensions, creative or destructive, between the quartet members are perceptively explored and the reader can appreciate the complex personalities of highly creative and sensitive virtuosi, whose captivating performances we tend to take for granted. Nonetheless, playing together, following the structural and harmonious intricacies of each composition, whether as duo, trio or quartet, overcomes any such impediments and leads to a level of intimacy and understanding that goes beyond speech. Getting into Michael's head with great skill, Seth creates a complex but believable character whose actions are often more the result of deeply felt emotions than rational analysis. To complement his protagonist's musings on his chamber musician colleagues and friends, and, of course, Julia, Seth turns to extensive passages of direct dialogue, thus energizing the narrative flow.

Michael's precious violin, an early 18th century Tononi, occupies one of the central themes in the narrative. It is another love affair of sorts and one he cannot abandon without losing his identity. Seth, well known also as a poet, finds the right lyrical tone when describing Michael's interaction with his violin, complementing the moods created by the music he plays or listens to. The violin, however, is only a long term loan from his violinist neighbour and music teacher in his home town in Northern England. She "discovered" and nurtured his talent from an early age and he keeps returning to her regularly for companionship and solace. Michael's family, while sympathetic, had no resources to support his ambitions. Seth very delicately raises the issues of family tensions, class and education as he contrasts Michael's upbringing with that of Julia, privileged daughter of an Oxford professor. Despite their differences, music can bridge any differences and misunderstandings between them.

It wouldn't be much of a story, if the former lovers were not to meet again... The romantic settings in Vienna and Venice add a beautiful and vivid backdrop to the concert tour by the Quartet. Those who have read the various reviews and book blurbs will no doubt know the main elements of the plot, unfortunately. I was cautioned by a friend not to read those and consequently explored the slow revelation of key events and secrets carried, with great pleasure. Seth has a wonderful sensitive touch in his exploration of the challenges faced by Michael and, in particular, Julia. This gives special depth to the story and take it beyond what one could have expected. [Friederike Knabe]

*) It is worthwhile exploring the music while reading or listening to it later on the companion CD An Equal Music (CD).
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on 12 January 2003
The basic plot of this novel by Vikram Seth is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again but with this simple story the author has constructed (perhaps composed would be a more apt word in this case!;-)) a most exquisite and beautiful novel. Mr. Seth obviously loves language and here he uses it to express himself and the emotions of his characters in a poetic and intelligent, meaningful and alluring manner. The images he builds are very powerful and moving and I found myself quickly drawn into this book so much so that I suspended my daily routine just to be able to finish this book! I found myself reading through the night to finish it. The characters Mr. Seth has created are very realistic, vivid and interesting people and ones which you empathise with. The main lead character Michael is beautifully developed as the novel progresses so that one feels his excitement when he meets Julia and his pain when things dont go his way. Julia too is an interesting character, beautiful, talented yet devastatingly handicapped and unsure as well. The secondary characters in this book also add considerably to the novel's depth.
As in his work, A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth is at his best when describing scenes and here again his vivid and colourful images of Vienna, London, and Venice are superbly crafted masterpieces of descriptive writing. Of course music plays a major role in this book both in its plot and its aestethic appeal and the book is full choc-a-bloc of descriptions of various pieces of classical music especially the Trout Quintent of Bach and also The Art of Fugue and of the perils and joys of playing the violin and the viola. I am immusical (though I do enjoy listening to music) and therefore will failed to have appreciated this aspect of the book properly but it is a measure of how well Mr. Seth writes and his mastery of language that not once was I bored by the technical musical passages. Indeed the book made me interested in learning more about this aspect of music. Better even than his previous book!
A joy to read. Tender and exquisite.
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on 8 February 2000
This was like eating a really good french meal, lots of interesting courses, beautifully presented, complimentary wines that enhance the food perfectly, and a feeling of not being stuffed at the end. Having read Suitable boy, I was prepared for a slow yet enjoyable read, however, I was mistaken, the pace is good, and matches the excellent descriptions of music in the book. You can hear the music from the words. You don't have to be a music expert to enjoy this book because the story is so gripping, the music just adds colour to an already impressive tableau. Basically I have recommended to all my friends, male and female, so read it!
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on 3 December 2005
This book made me pick up my violin for the first time in 15 years! I loved every page. This is a book about love, but the real love affair is the one with music. The complicated and awkward lives of the musicians seemed to me to be fairly accurate. I sympathised with Michael, the main character, but didn't particularly warm to the way he behaves. However, I think this is the point of the book. It is the music which remains true and faithful in Michael's life, and he remains true to music, however thoughtless, selfish and self-absorbed he might be in other aspects of his life.
Seth is able to evoke the feelings that music can inspire, and has a good understanding of his subject. I like the fact that the main composers he writes about are Beethoven, Schubert and Bach, and he celebrates their gifts to the world. It would have been all to easy to go for more contemporary music in an effort to impress, but to my mind these are still the greats. In an age when classical music is often seen to be pretentious, and the visual image is everything, this is a breath of fresh air.
The settings in London, Venice, Vienna and Manchester were perfect for me, as an adopted Mancunian from London!
On a slightly different note, one of the really appealing aspects of the book is the way it is set out in very short chapters of only two or three pages. Perfect for busy mums trying to grab a few minutes here or there. In fact I read far more quickly, thinking 'I'll just read one more chapter', and still being totally absorbed an hour later - dinner was a bit late, though!
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on 8 January 2002
I read this book whilst on holiday and when I returned home I felt compelled to play my piano for hours. Summed up all my feelings towards the music that I play and was moving throughout. Being a cellist I particularly liked the episode where Billy is criticised for being too extravagent with his arm movements. A really good read.
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on 22 July 2008
An easy book to read as the plot flies along, the characters are very well drawn, the dialogue is good and the sense of yearning from the main protagonist is well drawn.

A love affair that ended abruptly without as the Americans say 'closure'. Both parties remain hurt, still in love with each other but dealing with the extenuating circumstances that crash into everyone's lives and pull them off in different directions. For the main protagonist the book relates the story of a crisis year in his life both in his professional life as a muscian and his love life.

It is extremely well written and very moving at the end as you feel for poor Michael who struggles to withstand the neverending pounding that just being alive can give you. Also if you love classical music the extra dimension this brings is a joy. Not quite great literature but in that territory.
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on 11 August 2000
This is a story that doesn't start at the beginning or end at the end - but a fascinating read all the same, and what a bonus to find that Michael and I share a home town, even if he doesn't always see Rochdale in its most flattering light! I agree with other reviewers who say a knowledge of making music is not a prerequisite for enjoyment of this book - anyone who listens to music can, for a short while, be part of the world of the professional musician and can appreciate how devastating Julia's disability must be for her and those who care for her. I found An Equal Music sad, sometimes joyful, sometimes infuriating. An experience that will stay with me for a long time. Next time Vikram Seth is in the Rochdale area I hope he will join me for lunch at Owd Betts - not sure about the sole though!
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on 29 December 2010
This is a gentle understated story with an unhurried pace. The main characters are all classical musicians and the storyline can get a bit music tech heavy in places hence the four stars only. There is a very poetically described scene of mental anguish manifesting as stage fright which in other hands could have simply ended up being sensation grabbing but Seth manages to make it hang in convincingly with the general narrative and he's generated a high level of empathy in me for anyone who experiences such an incident. There is no tying up of loose ends but the book is all the more satisfying for not having a contrived ending. So in spite of being written over ten years ago and being 484 pages long, I think it still has plenty to say today if you want to take the time to read it.
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A novel which is both a melancholy love story and a celebration of the power of music, particularly chamber music. Michael is the second violin in a successful quartet. He gets on well with his colleagues: jovial Billy the cellist, gentle and fun-loving Helen the viola player - who loves him - and even her brother, egotistical Piers the first violin. He has a pleasant flat, and a glamorous young French girlfriend. He has come a long way from his origins as a butcher's son in Rochdale. But Michael cannot help remembering and brooding over his past, particularly his great lost love - Julia, a young pianist who he met while studying in Vienna. Michael had a nervous breakdown there, due to the tyrannical behaviour of his teacher Carl, and returned to England, without telling Julia where he was going. By the time he felt able to contact her again it was too late - her parents wanted him to have nothing to do with her. Now, he tries to tell himself he's resigned to Julia's loss, but cannot. Then, chance throws him and Julia together again. But Julia is now not only married with a small son, but keeping a terrible secret. As she and Michael recover their old closeness, helped by a discovery of a Beethoven piano trio that they played years ago arranged as a string quintet, it is clear that their relationship is putting both of them in emotional danger. And when Julia agrees to perform with Michael's quartet in a concert at the Vienna Musikverein, there will be no going back...

Seth writes beautifully: about places (London, Vienna, Venice, Rochdale), music (the vast body of chamber music that the quartet perform plus songs and orchestral works), and even about mundane things such as eating rice pudding or croissants, or swimming in the muddy Serpentine. He captures the atmosphere in the quartet particularly well, with each member a very vivid and individual character, and has an impressive knowledge and love of music. The ending of the book is incredibly moving. For me, the aspect I found least convincing was the relationship between Michael and Julia. I was never sure what Julia felt - a section of the book from her point of view would have been interesting! Did she want to leave her husband and return to Michael? Did she really love her husband and want to end her affair? What was going to happen to her at the end? Her (SLIGHT SPOILER) disability added another, perhaps too great complication to what was already a complicated plot. Nevertheless, I did like Julia as a character, and (though in some ways I thought he was horribly self-involved; witness his rather exploitative relationship with his French girlfriend) cared about Michael too.

Not a book that I found in the whole left me completely satisfied, but one with some marvellous things about it.
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