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Customer Review

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unlikely to turn readers on to chamber music!, 6 Feb. 2013
This review is from: An Equal Music (Paperback)
What is the matter with me? I love Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, I love classical music, I find the minutiae of musical rehearsal and performance fascinating, as a rule - but I thought this book was one terrible damp squib.

Part of the trouble is the central romance. Why on earth is our narrator, Michael, so obsessed with his lost love, Julia? Julia comes across as vacillating, manipulative, snobbish, judgmental, chilly and, in the end, cruel. Brave in facing her disability, but that is about all that can be said for her. Why was she so ready to cut Michael off in the first place when she knew what problems he was going through? Why do the two never have a `full and frank exchange of views', surely a prerequisite for either going on with their relationship or ending it? Because it would interfere with the doomy romantic atmosphere, I suppose ... but it makes the whole thing feel contrived, not obsessive. Even if, in the end, romantic love cannot be rationally explained, at least it has to be convincingly conveyed, and it's not.

Off topic, for a moment ... popular psychology often obsesses about why women fall in love with toxic men, but much more rarely about why men fall for toxic women. Michael has two perfectly all right women practically on their knees in front of him, but oh no, he has to go mooning after the enigmatic, unobtainable muse, aka bitch. Not only Michael, but even the author - seriously! - doesn't seem to notice how frightful Julia is. For my money, presenting a toxic woman as the ideal type of womanhood is even more insidiously misogynist than dismissing her as a bitch. Michael is too self-flagellating to move on to the next stage usual for men in his position: to decide that all women are bitches. No, guys, it's just that the only women you notice are bitches - and that, dear chaps, is your problem.

Anyway, the fact that the lead characters are unattractive or misguided or both doesn't of itself make this a bad novel. But a more serious problem is the low energy level at which it seems to be written. Whole scenes are narrated without any plot point, character development or atmospheric spark coming over; it reads almost as if the author was writing down something, anything, to overcome acute writer's block. Swimming in the Serpentine - ho, hum. On the phone to the agent - so what? As I was reading this aloud to my other half I kept prolonging the sessions (to his annoyance) by another and yet another scene, hoping something would eventually happen. Mostly nothing much did.

Intermittently a scene sputters into life with some sharply humorous observation of the `characters' of the musical world - the floridly gay music critic, the obsessed violin maker - contrasted to the genuinely felt description of the narrator's northern, working class background. There is at least one good plot twist, too, and over the book as a whole you do stealthily begin to care about some of the characters, especially the members of Michael's string quartet. But it's a hard slog getting there. And it does slightly amaze me that this book was so gushingly reviewed in the national press, given the perceived elitism of the subject and, frankly, the self-indulgence of its treatment. The book will only confirm most readers' (unfair) impression that the classical music world is a dull, pretentious place. Bet you couldn't get it published, if it was your first effort sent to an agent cold. But a reputation works wonders, doesn't it? Vikram, unlike his narrator, is no longer struggling among the artistic foot-soldiers.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Feb 2013 16:15:59 GMT
Great review. Wish the book itself could have held my interest half as much (being half the length would have been a start . . .)

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Feb 2013 11:51:27 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Feb 2013 21:21:26 GMT
Thanks. I've had two further horrible revelations on mulling over this book: first, that the reason why our media don't discuss the issue of men falling for toxic women is that feminism has placed a taboo on admitting that there is any such thing - surely one of its most counter-productive gambits ever; second, that Vikram Seth's other novels are set in America or the Indian sub-continent, and maybe he is under the impression that the English really do conduct their love affairs at such a tepid, repressed temperature as the one portrayed in the book. Perhaps it's an attempt at anthropology by an interested outsider. Vikram, thanks for trying, but we really mostly aren't as bad as that!!!
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