BLUE DUETS by Kathleen Wall

Book Quote:

“I’ve lived for years within bar lines, within metronome markings. When did I learn that music was paradoxical — that it depended on control and hyperbole, discipline and excess — and that real expressiveness was the struggle, the conversation, between these?”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (SEP 23, 2010)

Lila Jameson is a professional pianist living in Montreal. She specializes in chamber music — that is, playing with one or two other musicians rather than solo — so intense intimate interactions with others are an integral part of her life. But right now, her musical exchanges are in danger of being eclipsed by her personal ones. Her mother is dying of cancer and has rejected further treatments. Her husband, Rob, a professor of history, has become distant and Lila suspects an affair. Her daughter, Lindsay, is breaking up with her boyfriend. And Lila herself, at fifty-three, feels herself at a crossroads of her life, both blind and naked at the same time.

Take away the music, and the ingredients of this middle-class, middle-age crisis would be somewhat familiar, in both literature and life. But that is not to say uninteresting or uninvolving. Kathleen Wall is full of gentle surprises, as she veers smoothly away from expected patterns. Rob’s occasional soliloquies show while he may not, on this occasion, be an adulterer, his underlying attitude is manipulative and ultimately even more toxic. Two other men take a significant part in Lila’s story: there is Kevin, her violin partner, who is gay; and there is Stuart, the cellist, a late arrival whose own emotional needs both intensify their interaction and make it much less predictable. And the background story of the dying mother, which forms the narrative spine of the book, which spans four months in 2002, proves to be a source of strength rather than anxiety. Early on, Lila confesses: “My mother’s absence in two or three or four months’ time is terrifying, but it’s abstract and theoretical.” But she goes on: “The challenge is getting her there with her self intact.” It is a beautiful way of expressing the goal of terminal care, and Lila succeeds brilliantly, with the help of Stuart’s cello and her mother’s surprising mental resilience.

All the same, I am not sure that Wall herself succeeds entirely. There seems no reason for the 2002 date other than to get in a few spurious references to Bush and Iraq. The device of writing some chapters in Rob’s voice or Kevin’s seems strange when the person we are most truly interested in is Lila. Stringing the novel on the twin timelines of the mother’s dying and the rehearsals for a trio concert leaves the book curiously shapeless after both events have taken place; the description of the concert itself, with the long program notes on the two works by Brahms it contains, fails to work as the metaphorical summation the author presumably intended. All the same, if there is anything that raises these events above the humdrum, it is the world of music in which they are set.

I myself work in music; athough my professional activity is in opera, my amateur involvement is as a chamber music pianist, so I share a lot with Lila. I could see immediately that Wall loves music in a far from superficial sense, but something about the interactions between the professional partners did not ring entirely true. Perhaps as a result of the need to express it in words, there was always something expository, analytical, even didactic about their music-making, rather than the practical problem-solving that is the more typical activity. I sensed that Wall herself is more familiar with writing program notes than playing the actual pieces. On the other hand, convincing novels about musicians are few and far between; there is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, but few others come close. One thing that Wall handles supremely well, however, is the use of music as a metaphor. I began with Lila’s thoughts near the beginning; here she is at the very end, tackling Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

“I have been working on the Goldbergs, largely for my mother. I can imagine them being written for the metaphysical insomniac, and hope they will put her wishes for me to sleep. She would have loved the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of them, the wordless portraits of moments of being we have no need to describe to others since Bach has done it for us. Some are contemplative, and move with the fluidity of lucid, personal thought. Others are extroverted and social. I could explain those differences by talking about the dance forms of Bach’s time. But you would say I’m being slightly dishonest, or even disingenuous. Some of them are lived; others are merely thought or dreamed. It’s hard work to get your hands to express these differences but worth the effort. And to remain, suspended, in that musical effort, is enough.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Brindle & Glass; 1st edition (September 15, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another music book recently reviewed:

The Immortals by Amit Choudhuri

An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell


September 23, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Canada, Contemporary

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.