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The Ensemble

Review

The Ensemble

There are some debut novels that you read with a sort of fierce awe, the back of your mind buzzing: my gosh, no way, this can’t possibly be their debut --- this is so masterful, so poised, not a toe out of line or a thread hanging loose. But THE ENSEMBLE is, in fact, Aja Gabel’s debut, signifying a phenomenal new talent in the world of novels.

The book follows four young musicians forging their path through life as an ensemble: the Van Ness Quartet. Brit, the second violinist, is parentless and quiet. Daniel, the oldest, is skeptical and so unsure of himself that he takes it out on those who cross his path. Henry is the prodigy whose privileges blind him to too many truths. Jana, who is on first violin, is determined but mercurial and obdurate.

"THE ENSEMBLE is a vibrant, passionate novel. It moves, fittingly, like an exquisite, polished concerto: accelerating and decelerating, but with the artist always in control."

THE ENSEMBLE interrogates friendship and intimacy through Gabel’s clear and exquisite prose, but theirs is both inherently a friendship and something else entirely. Their connection is built out of a need. They live not only individual lives but as one fourth of a whole, and that whole is built upon complex realities like career and success, but also upon the more intangible experiences of musicality. To be a successful string ensemble, Gabel evokes, you need to be more than in tune with each other’s instruments on stage and in rehearsal. They come to learn each other’s patterns, rhythms and movements. They pull intricate beauty out of air, string and sinew together. They are always striving for a greater perfection, always attuned to the slightest mistake, not only their own but also each other’s. The nature of their career path means that they share goals, schedules, lives and breath.

When the four of them pair off or splinter, they know it must be secondary to the well-being of the quartet. Jana, Henry, Brit and David are sometimes in harmony with each other, at other times dissonant. When one experiences tragedy or confusion, it reverberates throughout the others and throughout their playing. There are moments in which they would do almost anything for each other, for the sake of the quartet --- personal goals inextricable from those of the other three. They are with each other through tragedy and triumph, messy success and messy devastation, quietly destructive secrets and lasting destructive loyalty.

Gabel deftly composes a deeply felt, incisive narrative that explores their trajectories, together and apart. THE ENSEMBLE is a vibrant, passionate novel. It moves, fittingly, like an exquisite, polished concerto: accelerating and decelerating, but with the artist always in control. There is a recognizable cadence, discernable motifs and a refrain, culminating in a satisfying coda. This is ferociously excellent art.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on June 1, 2018

The Ensemble
by Aja Gabel

  • Publication Date: May 15, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 073521476X
  • ISBN-13: 9780735214767