THE ROSE VARIATIONS by Marisha Chamberlain
“Summer in full leaf and flower thickened sounds, complicated the wind, adding infinite sighings and slurrings. A beehive was like a tiny orchestra hall, the hidden musicians uniting in a humming, sizzling, endlessly varying chord that transferred swiftly to the music Rose was writing. New sounds woke up old sounds, her earliest melodies and rhythms, which told of her own journey. She had somehow gone back to her childhood, to the initial thrill of sound.”
Reviewed by Terez Rose Â (JUL 12, 2009)
A variation, musically speaking, is a repetition of a melodic theme, diverging from its origin through changes in harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, or key. In The Rose Variations, playwright and poet Marisha Chamberlain gives us Rose MacGregor, twenty-five and newly arrived at a private Minnesota college for a year-long teaching assignment. Rose is a cellist, but composing music is her true lifeâ€™s calling. This is the 1970â€™s, and both her single status and her aspirations in a male-dominated field earn her the vaguely pejorative nickname of â€śThe Girl Composer.â€ť
The Rose Variations chronicles Roseâ€™s life, her efforts at professional success, the relationships that play a strong part in defining her. Her early friends include her still-in-the-closet colleague Alan, and insecure but canny department secretary Frances. Romance soon comes in the form of stonemason Guy, the â€śright man at the wrong timeâ€ť whose strong interest soon puts Roseâ€™s professional aspirations at risk.
Following her year of teaching, now apart from Guy, she accepts an invitation to a rural enclave, where we meet Lila Goldensohn, cellist extraordinaire, on professional leave, struggling with her own issues of nonconformity. Lila, as described so vividly by Chamberlain, â€śgave a disheartening first impression: stiff and unsmiling, her heavy black hair massively subdued in a gold clip like something sheâ€™d killed for a trophy. Her brow weighed down over her eyes and her prominent jaw clenched as she lifted her bow.â€ť Lila, sequestered on her farm with a group of women, is a wonderfully original character, one of Chamberlainâ€™s best, sporting a full beard and an acrid, rancid smell, likely one of the reasons she has left the stage, tired of the pressure to look and smell more feminine and â€śnot like myself,â€ť as she confides to Rose. But Lila holds great interest in Roseâ€™s music, which soon develops into interest in Rose herself, an issue that disrupts the harmonious set-up on the farm and plays out in a hilarious, tender, awkward scene, establishing Chamberlain as a brilliant writer with a comicâ€™s deadpan timing and a poetâ€™s evocative use of language.
Leaving the farm to commence a new phase of her lifeâ€”another of the Rose Variations, if you willâ€”Rose returns to work in the city, the recipient of a grant that allows her to put on a professional chamber performance of her music, one that ultimately serves to establish her as a composer of merit.
The story, which spans six years, is punctuated by dissonance in the form of Roseâ€™s toxic, wayward sister, Natalie, and the defection of Roseâ€™s best friend, a fellow single female in a male-dominated field (medicine), who betrays the sisterhood by not only taking the traditional route of marriage, but transforming into a horrifying bridezilla. Both subplots serve to illustrate to Rose â€śthe path not takenâ€ť while adding sizeable tension to the story, although less would have been more here. Natalie, initially pregnant and needy, now dragging along a helpless young daughter whom Rose adores, grows thoroughly detestable, as does, to a lesser extent, the oblivious, wedding-preoccupied friend. Roseâ€™s passive acceptance of their behavior makes it easy for the reader to lose, not gain, sympathy for Roseâ€™s plight.
Playing counterpoint to Roseâ€™s composing is teaching, back at the college where sheâ€™s now on track for tenure, as well as on the cusp of having her first symphony premiered by a major orchestra. This is a grand coup, sponsored through her friendship with renown conductor Stephen Orrick. But a visit to Orrickâ€™s Seattle household results in conflict that threatens to derail her personally and professionally. The pivotal scene is riveting, painful and howlingly funny, and swiftly changes the storyâ€™s tone from major to minor key.
It should be noted that, although Rose is a cellist and a composer of classical music, this is not a musicianâ€™s story, which sometimes works against it. We hear little about her own music practice, nor what music she surrounds herself with. Does she listen to BartĂłk or Phillip Glass or Schoenberg to engage her composerâ€™s mind, or does she prefer the timeless purity of Bach? Is she a romanticist, a neoclassicist, or an advocate of the un-melodic Twelve-tone style? Chamberlain does, however, do a fine job in detailing Roseâ€™s impressions of observing other musicians, such as Lila.
â€śThe moment she drew her bow across the strings, her stage presence no longer mattered. The sound eclipsed the sight of her, as though the ear could for once overthrow the almighty eye. In the fluid notes that crested and fell, the surging and slowing and rising again, Rose heard, that first time sheâ€™d witnessed Lila Goldensohn, what she had previously known only in her head and had never been able to produce in her own playing. The sound emerged as though from a single body, musician and instrument as one, and each note seemed sung.â€ť
What ultimately makes this novel succeed so well is Rose herself, her wry humor, her intelligent observations about life, luck, the nature of friendship and love. The storyâ€™s pacing does slow toward the end, when tenure and love are questions whose answers are coyly dangled out of reach a bit too long, but this accounts to nothing more than a few missed notes in an otherwise triumphant composition.
Thereâ€™s another successful novel Iâ€™m reading right now that might be more smoothly paced, hitting all those marketable right notes with mathematical precision, and yet the characters and their plight feel ultimately unmemorable, compared to Rose and company. As I was busy hating Natalie and scorning Rose for her misguided loyalty, it dawned on me that Chamberlain had succeeded in breaking through the barrier that normally separates a fictional character from the real world. Rose, as a living, breathing character, was utterly convincing to me. This, then, is why I highly recommend The Rose Variations.
Because, after all, in good fiction, just as in good music performance, itâ€™s not about the missed notes. Worthy art never is.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 8 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Soho Press; First Edition Â (February 1, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Marisha Chamberlain|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More fiction for music lovers :Savior by Eugene DruckerVivaldi’s Virginsby Barbara QuickOrpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital
The Rainaldi Quartet by Paul Adam
Tenderwire by Claire Kilroy
- The Rose Variations (February 2009)