An Equal Music: Book Review

I’m not much of a fiction literature guy. In fact, you could say I’m fictionally illiterate. 🙂 When I read blogs with prominent bookshelves, or ‘Literary Experiments’ in the tag line, I get an inferiority complex. My Unquiet Mind has to confront the reality that I’m pretty much a moron when it comes to ‘literature’. Discounting Ayn Rand, my involvement with fiction is pretty much limited to Ludlum, Asterix, and Three Men In A Boat. The only reason I’ve heard of T. S. Eliot is because of the graffiti that it is an anagram of Toilets. In order that I don’t need to use one when educated folks discuss literature, I occasionally read friend’s posts of Book Memes, or better still, browse their real bookshelves. an-equal-music.jpg

I was thus perusing Asuph’s impressive library, seeing if there was any chance there might be something I would consider myself worthy of actually reading. After some time, the only book I could request to borrow was an old, decrepit, Perry Mason. 🙂 But being the good friend that he is, he thrust Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in my hands, saying “you’ll be able to appreciate this, as it deals a lot with music”. I hesitated, but he goaded me on. That’s one of the reasons friends are for, isn’t it? They lead us to explore new avenues, ultimately enriching our lives, and we feel so grateful in the end.

So, without further ado, here’s my first attempt at writing a book review.

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music – not too much, or the soul could not sustain it – from time to time.


An Equal Music is narrated by Michael Holme, a second violinist in a Quartet based in London. It is a nicely woven braid of his love of music and his love of Julia, with whom he studied music in Vienna. He has lost her when he ran away from Vienna to escape his autocratic mentor. The story is about his tenuous reunion with Julia, who is married with a family of her own, and about Michael and his Quartet’s struggle in the European classical circuit.

His past haunts Michael to such an extent that the story progresses as if walking forward while continuing to look backward.


The strongest element of the book. It acted like a glue holding the story and characters together, and my interest till the end. Seth indulges in the works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Haydn, offering a unique glimpse into the world of chamber music. The interpersonal dynamics of the Quartet that influence their performance. Their approach and method of rehearsing. The commerce of instruments. The business of a Quartet.

anequalmusic.jpgThroughout, I enjoyed the intimacy with music and identified with the characters. The almost sub-conscious habit of thinking of the great composers as if they were living acquaintances. The fascination and romanticizing of specific works. Michael has a less laborious pursuit to obtain a rare Beethoven Quintet than I did in search of a Mozart Divertimento.


The weakest aspect of the book is the shallow character development. Michael is so strongly influenced by his past that his nostalgia, his obsessive brooding, make you realize that he will never shape his future. Why exactly does he leave Vienna abruptly? He comes across as a nervous wreck and in other matters, incredibly stupid. He needs a 101 on relationships, finance, and professional networking skills. He loves deeply, but I could not empathize with his love for Julia.

Other than her ability to play well, why is she so lovable? Why does she suddenly sleep with him again? What influences her decisions as she deals with the conflict between a family life and an extra-marital affair?

Zone of Silence

Julia’s progressive deafness may be considered as a hackneyed plot device by some readers, but Seth handles this challenge extraordinarily well. He engages us in the ‘zones of intersection of the world of soundlessness with those of the heard, mis-heard, and of imagined sound’. Recollections of Immortal Beloved are but natural.


I doubt if musically uninitiated readers would enjoy this book. If you’re not amused by likening three tall and one short persons in a group to Beethoven’s Fifth, you will miss the most enamoring aspect of the book: the profound love of music that permeates throughout. Seth lives and breathes music.

PS: Connect on Shelfari if you’re a real, non-fiction (a tautology?) lover. Many thanks to Asuph. Oh yes, and I did read the Perry Mason first.

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  • Mahendra

    I identify with the your characterisation of yourself at the beginning of this post. Somewhere I learnt that I need 8-9 hours of sleep and I have 15-16 hours to work, cook, get ‘culture’ and read. I chose non-fiction. To understand is more important to me than to be entertained.

    And I remember when you mailed me saying everytime you have a mail from Shelfari you wonder what Shefaly is sending you now! 🙂

    I may update the shelves soon or move to Library Thing. Will see. Will keep you posted.

    PS: Good review indeed. It is overall a depressing book although his depictions of Vienna and Venice are creepily accurate. He is nice chap too, Vikram Seth. Genial, friendly and about my height (ha ha! Well, ok, a bit taller.)

  • The last time I read Seth was when I was apoplectic about the ending in his Dead-Tree-Soap-Opera “A Suitable Boy”. I am yet to recover from that.

  • Hey, I not very much of a music love (Problem is when I listen to music, I don’t listen, I drift into something else), but I read this book few years ago and found it a good read. That Julia’s was losing her hearing capacity made it more enticing.

    Vikram Seth is good epic writer and it works for patient readers like me. Still, Suitable boy is my preferred book.

    It is a nice review. 😀

    And you don’t want us to connect at Shelfari if we read fiction? 😉

  • Anand

    Nice review. As you know, I like to read a lot as well. Typically I read one non-fiction and one fiction at the same time. That way, depending on my mood, I can switch back and forth between learning and being entertained 🙂

    I haven’t read this one and maybe I will pick up a copy. The only Vikram Seth book that I have read is ‘The Golden Gate’. The entire book is written as sonnets. This made the book very unique although I found the story to be kinda lame. The most interesting aspect for me was that the story was based in SF and it talked about lots of places in the city where I have been before.

    By sheer coincidence, while I was travelling, I read 3 books in which the central character had left his job and was either travelling or doing something random – haha.


  • Hey Anand, thanks for the comments. Like your switching practice. I keep switching between Asterix/Tintin and whatever else I’m reading 🙂

    Almost everyone I know online seems to have read a Vikram Seth book, so now I feel privileged to join that club.

    Was that pick of books ‘purely unintentional’? Ha ha ha!

  • Good analytical review Mahendra. I have not read much of Vikram Seth, and just the popular Suitable Boy which I did not find exactly gripping! There is no doubt however that Seth writes superbly and is in fact a treat to read.

  • BTW, I see Steppenwolf in your shelfari. Don’t recalling seeing it the last time I browsed thru your books. Do you have it? (mighty interested)

  • Dottie

    The sheer size of Seth’s books makes me a reluctant reader. Haven’t yet a single Seth, yet. I liked your review and almost added the book to my list, but one of the commentators said it was a bit depressing. So, then maybe not 🙂 Re, your learning vs. entertaining, for me they are mostly the same. If I am not learning anything, I am not being entertained either, mostly. And vice versa.

    I went to your Shelfari umm.. shelf. And what, no Asimov? 🙂

  • Dottie

    lol. I like sci-fi, although I think Asimov is more futuristic fiction! Clarke is more my style. oh and BigGeek won’t comment under my moniker 🙂

  • Oops! How did I think he would use your alias? Silly me. 🙂

    Nope, I haven’t read much science fiction. Something to think about. Thanks.