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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Overture by Yael Goldstein

Overture by Yael Goldstein. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51781-2

One of my favorite genres, as I've said before, is the novel with a musical framework for the storyline. At some point, I probably ought to create a separate index entry for those books, but for now, they're mixed in with the rest of the “other fiction” category. Here's a list of those blogged so far:

There are other books I've blogged, with musical titles, which undoubtedly attracted me to the books, but which ultimately were not musical in nature, such as Peter Ackroyd's English Music and Poe Ballantine's Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire. At least Ackroyd's novel includes a dissertation on the music of William Byrd, but music per se doesn't really form the basis for the book.

Well, back to the novel at hand. This book most definitely IS about musicians. The primary protagonist is Natasha Darsky, a beautiful and sensuous concert violinist who has had a brilliant career, but whose entire adult life seems to have been the result of having rejected her lover while still attending Harvard as a composition student.

It happens like this: she worms her way into the master class of an elite Harvard professor, who never allows freshmen into his seminar, but takes Natasha. At this point in her life, Natasha thinks playing the violin is boring, and that creating music—composing—is the only goal worthy of pursuit.

She meets and falls in love with Jean Paul Boumedienne, a remarkable young French composer and fellow student. Jean Paul has developed a strikingly original method of composition, which somehow forces dense, polyphonic, seemingly atonal music into tonal resolution, in a way that somehow seems inevitable—a required way of writing that Natasha comes to believe in, and tries to make her own.

But then she reads a chance remark that her lover makes to his mother in a letter about her:

Sometimes I think that she is able to understand what I write better than I understand it, and that helps me to write even better the next time. Sometimes this even makes me sad for her.

"Sad for me?" thinks Natasha. "Why would he be sad for me?"

"It couldn't be, could it, that it was because he thought my talent was ONLY for understanding? That he called his music “our music” not because we were equal partners in its creation but because he regretted that I couldn't produce any worthwhile works of my own? It couldn't be, I was sure of it, but the more times I read the paragraph, the more inescapable this conclusion seemed."

But does Natasha confront Jean Paul, or even let on that she has read the letter? Certainly not. Instead, she apparently believes his presumed judgment on her, and takes up violin performance instead of continuing her composition studies. She enters an international competition on a whim, and while she doesn't win, she comes in second. And inevitably, her concert career is launched.

She leaves Jean Paul, almost without explanation, leaving him emotionally wounded, if not permanently scarred. She barely tells him why, and only when she's breaking up, without any real dialog. And this sets the tone for the rest of her life.

Every time she performs, it is as though she is playing out her relationship with Jean Paul, performing to a memory of him. She is soon described as “the most erotic performer in any industry outside pornography,” and “a shot of sex appeal straight to the heart of classical music.” Yet “Jean Paul,” she says in the first person voice in which the book is written “in some sad and strange way, was still the main man in my life.”

It is a powerful and moving story, and one which entranced me from beginning to end. If you enjoy emotionally charged situations and characters, together with a solid dose of the classical music world, this book is definitely for you. Highly recommended. An excerpt from the book is available at the publisher's web site.


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