The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
by Aja Gabel
Riverhead Books (May 15, 2018)
Advance copy provided by publisher
Like many of you, I will assume, I try not to judge a book by its cover; having said that, the first time I laid eyes on the The Ensemble I was hooked. I am thankful that its designer fully appreciated the unique and breathtaking qualities of this narrative and assisted in translating it into a cover worthy of its beauty. That this is a debut novel is equally stunning; it is also one of the reasons that debut novels excite me because there are times, exceptionally, when I stumble upon such luck.
The Ensemble is just as its title suggests: a story of four individuals who join one another rather early in life, thanks to their musical craft, but I would argue that the music is but a small part of the dynamic that binds them. If you've ever been on a team of any sort that requires the full commitment of each member for success, you might have a glimpse into the life of a string quartet.
Thankfully, author Aja Gabel, a former cellist, has gifted readers with her talent for crafting prose that is as melodic and fluid as the music played by her characters; she takes readers on a journey through these characters' lives that ebbs and flows both beautifully and tragically. She also includes a list of pieces that are mentioned and described during each section of the novel; I HIGHLY recommend listening while you read, if possible! There were a few times when I read at night, in bed, and did not follow the music, but I did go back and listen to those selections; I think it adds so much to the experience. I have created a Spotify playlist that includes all (with the exception of one) of the pieces listed, in case you're interested.
I am not a musician; I played piano at a competitive level for seven years, but gave it up while I was in high school (moved on to sports and worthless social endeavors). There is quite a bit of musical lingo and discussion in this novel, but please do not let that deter you; it adds so much to the power of the story. In addition, I have to say that the narrative builds, progressively; the second half of the novel is propulsive and I could not put it down.
This novel is perfect for fans of broken, flawed characters with hazy pasts and, rather than family dynamics, it is filled with ensemble dynamics; think of A Little Life but, instead of individual characters, as a group of characters who sacrifice and survive disappointment for the sake of one another. It is BEAUTIFUL! Did I say that already?