Summary and book reviews of The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble

by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel X
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
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  • Published:
    May 2018, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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About this Book

Book Summary

The addictive novel about four young friends navigating a cutthroat world and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives.

Jana. Brit. Daniel. Henry. They would never have been friends if they hadn't needed each other. They would never have found each other except for the art which drew them together. They would never have become family without their love for the music, for each other.

Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who's always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group's youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other - by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.

Following these four unforgettable characters, Aja Gabel's debut novel gives a riveting look into the high-stakes, cutthroat world of musicians, and of lives made in concert. The story of Brit and Henry and Daniel and Jana, The Ensemble is a heart-skipping portrait of ambition, friendship, and the tenderness of youth.

Part 1

In this way, the concert happened without any of them being there at all, really. If the "Serioso" was also about love, Brit tried to remember the vast swath of her life when she didn't love Daniel, but while they were playing, it was impossible. His boyish face contorted uncontrollably, erotically. She wondered if he felt that way about her, too, watching her play, if anyone did. And she decided no, that wasn't quite the way she played. Brit liked nuance, liked to be the supporting voice, the harmonic line you didn't know you heard. But Daniel, as cellist, was a presence to be noticed. And like a grunting tennis pro, he couldn't manage his face when he was really inside of the music, he wore his effort there, and so it went practically unconscious, and he slipped into some liminal area where desire met work. He squirmed in his seat, propped his right foot on its ball, twisted his nose so that his glasses would stay up, and that mouth. She'd never loved...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Especially early on, there is a lot of backstory and internal contemplation, and more scenes and dialogue would help us to engage with the characters. I also felt that the point-of-view could have changed a bit more frequently; the first quarter of the book is from Jana and Brit's perspectives, and for a while I worried we'd never hear from the male characters, which would be a strangely biased view of proceedings. But once you get past this point, the novel really hits its stride, and you come to care about these musicians and sympathize with their longings to make the most of their lives. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art into the rest of life.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An accomplished rendering of the competitive world of classical music helps balance the less-elegant handling of the characters' emotional lives.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Readers will come away with a renewed appreciation for things people usually take for granted when listening to music. The four characters are individually memorable, but as a quartet they're unforgettable.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Gabel explores friendship and art with great warmth, humanity, and wisdom.

Author Blurb Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere
Aja Gabel's powerful debut offers a sensitive portrait of four young musicians forging their paths through life: sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes in harmony, but always inextricably linked by their shared pasts.

Author Blurb Maggie Shipstead, New York Times bestselling author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me
With uncommon clarity and empathy, Aja Gabel brings us inside the passionate, complex, and sometimes cutthroat intimacy that exists among the four members of a string quartet. A wise and powerful novel about love, life, and music. I didn't want it to end.

Author Blurb Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Sweeping, romantic, elegiac, The Ensemble gives you the feeling of being inside the music of a quartet, a look into the relationships under the music, the love and heartbreak, set against their ruthless commitment to both their art, and to each other. Aja Gabel is a phenomenon.

Author Blurb Mat Johnson, author of Pym and Loving Day
The Ensemble deserves a standing ovation. A gripping tale of four musician's journeys through discord and harmony, life and love. Aja Gabel is a brilliant young writer with the rare gift of an old soul.

Author Blurb Kevin Brockmeier
I often admire novels that are platforms for their writers' own stories, upon which their own singular character, with its own singular history, is carefully incised. This, however, is a novel of a different, more expansive, and altogether more electrifying kind. Aja Gabel contains at least four complete human beings inside her, and I'm guessing countless others. She knows these people down to their cells, and she gives all of herself to them.

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Beyond the Book

String Quartets

Avoca QuartetIn the second half of the eighteenth century, chamber music, which was played by ensembles (small groups of musicians and thus suitable for smaller rooms), became very fashionable. The term "ensemble" comes from the Old French word for "together" and can refer to a grouping of any size, from a duet up to a full orchestra. The Dublin-based Avoca String Quartet's website describes chamber music thus: "No particular performer features prominently, and in chamber music all the musicians play intently together. It is rather like a musical conversation in which everyone has something to say."

The string quartet, the most frequent arrangement used in chamber music, is almost always composed of two violins, a viola, and a cello, as is the ...

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