Title: An Equal Music
Author: Vikram Seth
Release Date: May 2, 2000
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Michael Holme is a violinist living in London, making his living as a member of a traveling quartet. He lives a fleeting life, but all that changes in an instant when Michael sees Julia McNicholl on a bus. Michael and Julia had a passionate affair ten years ago, and she has haunted him ever since. But Julia has a husband and son now, and everything has changed. Will Michael risk his future and his career for Julia, especially since she is hiding a secret?
The world of professional musicians is one that is often romanticized, and Vikram Seth does an admirable job balancing that view with that life’s harsh realities in An Equal Music. Yes, Michael does spend his days visiting record shops, looking for recordings of obscure pieces and giving lessons to attractive young women, as well as playing for sold-out concert halls as a part of his quartet. But he also has to face the more difficult aspects of his chosen profession: a constant lack of money, life always on the go, unable to really create roots, and the worries around his very expensive, borrowed instrument.
Michael is an interesting character in An Equal Music. It would be so easy to dislike him, yet Seth doesn’t make it as simple as that. The life he is living before he reunites with Julia is something of a hollow one. Yes he plays his music and is having a lackluster affair with one of his students, but there is little depth. Julia gives him that meaning, but at what price? She drags up painful memories, and Michael must contend with the fact that she has built a life with someone else. He loves her, though, and must pursue her regardless of the cost.
Julia is a little more difficult to embrace. Though Seth wrote her very well, meticulously even, she’s not the easiest character to like. She seems very selfish, especially with the choices she makes in terms of keeping her secret. She also leads Michael on; she knows he loves her, but she is torn between her family and the musician she loved so long ago. Understandable, to be sure, but frustrating, as she seems to only think of herself and not the others she can hurt by her actions. Both Julia and Michael are layered and complex; they are incredibly well-written. They are each flawed in their own ways and make mistakes. It’s easy to forget they’re characters on a page, rather than real people.
Seth’s writing is beautiful in An Equal Music. He writes so poetically about the emotional world of music, about how much it asks of its members. He discusses difficult relationships and the politics within a quartet like an expert. The entire novel is incredibly well done; Seth keeps the reader guessing about every aspect of the storyline, from Michael’s violin to his history with Julia. It’s difficult to write a novel of emotional suspense, yet Vikram Seth has accomplished that masterfully in An Equal Music. Fans of literary fiction shouldn’t hesitate to read this novel.