An Equal Music: Book Review

I’m not much of a fiction literature guy. In fact, you could say I’m fictionally illiterate. πŸ™‚ 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

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. πŸ™‚ But being the good friend that he is, he thrust Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in my hands, saying β€œyou’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.

An Equal MusicThroughout, 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.


37 thoughts on “An Equal Music: Book Review

  1. 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! πŸ™‚

    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.)

  2. 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.

  3. Krishashok: He recently talked about the Hindi translation of the book and with a title of the kind the translation has (suggested by Nasreen Munni Kabir), I am waiting for a copy to come for me from India this week πŸ™‚

    Not suggesting Hindi is your language (now I am not sure who in India gets and who doesn’t get offended by the mention of the H-word…) but just saying.

  4. 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. πŸ˜€

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

  5. Poonam

    You may know this already that An Equal Music has a music CD that goes with it. Look for it and if you don’t find it, tell me and I shall bring it along on my next visit. Good excuse to meet too.

  6. You spoke my mind, except that I would have said ‘to learn is more important to me than to be entertained’. To be honest, I spent a lot of time with this thought when composing this post…

    πŸ™‚ Yes, it took some time. Since both you and Shelfari were newcomers to my Inbox at the same time, it was a bit confusing at first!

    I’m not too happy with Shelfari either. Looking for better alternatives. But don’t wish to start building a shelf from scratch.

    Thanks for the encouragement. This is my first ‘review’. πŸ™‚

  7. That is very interesting Poonam. You must really be both patient and very knowledgeable about literature to be able to enjoy this without being a music lover. I am amazed. If this were a book on a topic I didn’t love, I don’t think I could have read it till the end.

    Thank you. If those who’ve read it like my review, I’m happy to know that I’m not very much off-track.

    Anyone is free to connect, anywhere, anytime. I just don’t think my shelf will offer much to fiction-lovers. πŸ™‚

  8. Are you asking nicely, Mahendra? πŸ™‚ Easier to send it to you since I have a bunch of friends running TechMahindra now and they often are in Pune.

  9. Of course nicely…why would I not? πŸ™‚ And I’m more interested in the good excuse than the CD…LOL!

    ‘running TechMahindra’? Wow. That’s interesting.

  10. Mahendra

    I was in Pune in January as I may have mentioned. Only for a bit of a day. Now I do not know how I may ever get to Pune. Even the said friends do not live in Pune but variously in Blr, Del etc. :-/

  11. Is to learn just learning facts? I think it’s quite uncharitable to discard a huge body of literature as just “entertainment”.

    I wouldn’t say Eco, Pamuk, Ghosh, Marquez, Hesse, Kundera, Vijayan — to name a few, from experience, I’m sure others can add a lot many here — are just (or even at all) about entertainment.

    Bang for buck (in terms of time, of course), non-fiction might rank higher. But at the end of the day, it boils down to ‘what’ one wants to learn. And that’s a highly personal choice.

    That apart, a good, pointed review. Almost Randian aesthetics, I must say :).

    Yes, I think without music binding it, the book would just be ordinary. And that’s why I don’t dare pick another Seth, after this one.


  12. 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 πŸ™‚

    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.


  13. Oops; don’t get rubbed the wrong way. I think my book review does reveal the fact that I did learn something from the book, isn’t it? I am not discarding fiction as ‘purely entertainment’ either, it is more an identification of non-fiction being ‘purely non-entertainment’.

    In general, non-fiction ranks higher in terms of ROI for me, and as you rightly pointed out, it is after all, a personal choice.

    Being my first book review, and that too, of fiction literature, I must say I’m very happy with your evaluation! And boy, did your comment cause a resurgence of that inferiority complex! πŸ™‚

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

    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!

  15. Lol! I guess I was just looking at an opportunity to leave a footprint here ;-). Many a times, I do not have much to say, but that a even a slight slur (even if unintended) on literature, and it becomes a question of honor :D. After all, we’re all honorable men (and women).

    Mahendra, reading a phrase like “inferiority complex” in your writing makes my CPU core-dump. I think you just haven’t picked up literature in earnest (ROI definitely). Now don’t tell me you’d rather watch March of the Penguins and not Out of Africa. Isn’t that also a non-fiction/literature split, audio-visually?

    BTW, I don’t identify non-fiction as purely non-entertainment. Where does that leave dev barrys and the scott adams of the world?


  16. 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.

  17. 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)

  18. Some day, I’m going to write a post on “Perils of Generalization in Human Communication”…

    Yup, I have not learned the language of literature. I think I’ll be very selective about it, let’s see.

    Yes, I will watch Out of Africa any time (as you very well know), but it’s not a non-fiction/literature split. Out of Africa is almost completely a true story! Ha ha ha! Seriously, I get what you mean, and I agree.

  19. Thanks, Nita. I have heard A Suitable Boy is an epic and don’t think I’ll have the patience to go through it!

    Yes, Seth’s style is unique…

  20. It’s been there since ’95, Ghatkopar days! πŸ™‚

    How did this land up in my shelf? Simple – it was gifted by that German colleague who played the piano for me…

    Well, at least this proves that you got to spend more time at my place!

  21. 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 πŸ™‚ 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? πŸ™‚

  22. Ah! You got me there. I can’t believe I missed Steppenwolf. However hurried the glance.

    If I’m not wrong the fellow was also Stephen, right?


  23. I had not and have not even seen any other Seth book yet! πŸ™‚

    It’s not that depressing. Let me tell you this: the love for Julia does not fructify, the love for music does, in a way. Maybe that’ll help you decide.

    Hmm…is this DotMom or BigGeek commenting? Or is DotMom also a fan of SciFi? Yes, I do not currently own any Asimov. The couple that I had were lent and lost…:-(

  24. Mahendra:

    I am not sure if I should mention the H-word again or not but Seth’s native language is Hindi. In London recently he shared the story about how the publishers of the Hindi version of A Suitable Boy suggested the title “Ek Suyogya Var” while Nasreen Munni Kabir suggested “Koi Achchha Sa Ladka” which naturally was a much better title and was adopted. I asked a friend to bring me a copy if she could find one. Just the name makes me want to read the whole epic again!

  25. Yes, I am aware of the CD. πŸ™‚ Unfortunately, when someone returned me the book, CD was missing. However,I must confess that I didn’t fret much and soon forgot about it until now, since music is usually not my prime concern. But if you insist, it shouldn’t be hard to find it. There’s always the British Council library where the book (with CD) is omnipresent.

  26. I rarely give up reading a book midway. If I do, even bhulakkad person like me remembers that.

    One book I came close to giving up recently (last year actually) was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It was as if I had already picked up all points that emerged from Heller’s dark humor, and I found it repititive. That’s one calsic I couldn’t enjoy. But I persisted.

    I am not only a fiction lover, I do read non-fiction. Since my reading is squeezed into travlling, I take to reading stories rather than some serious stuff that I want to read with contemplation. But I am always interested in non-fiction barring self-help books, which I loathe.

  27. I buy lots of book at one time and then read them over time. That way I never run out of reading material. I pick up at least 10-12 books during every India trip.

    So to answer your question, one of these books was collected over time and I ended up reading it when I was travelling. Of the other two, I swapped one with a fellow traveler (great minds think alike and travel and read random books) and picked up the other one at a book exchange (great minds don’t always meet face to face, but at times communicate through book exchanges) πŸ˜‰

    If you want I can send you an email with book recommendations and then nag you to respond in kind πŸ™‚

  28. Given that music is not your prime concern you may give this a pass. Speaking for myself, I never give up these rare opportunity to listen to music and at the same time learn from someone’s insightful commentary on it…

  29. Hmmm…somehow, I’ve never read Catch 22. With most of the books that take the world by storm and everyone seems to be reading it, I’m usually late to the party. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve bought and read books much before they became well-known, like A Brief History of Time.

    Reading while traveling does pose its own challenges. I too would not read serious non-fiction on the go.

  30. Somehow I have never been in a book exchange situation. I’m too possessive of my books and lend them only to very close friends. Yet I have lost dozens of books that were lent and never returned.

    I’m moving out of Shelfari. I now have my bookshelf as an XLS with ISBN details so that I should be able to upload to any site. Let me finalize on a good book site. Your recommendations and comments would be very valuable, and I prefer using an online site for them, so that not just me, but many others will benefit! πŸ™‚

  31. Shefaly, please do not refer to Hindi as the H-word, at least on my blog. All languages are sacred. Language is the expression of man’s conceptual faculties, which make us human and unique. I assure you that no one disrespecting any language will be tolerated on my blog.

    I liked ‘Ek Suyogya Var’ better, but I do not know anything about the book. Is it because you are an unmarried female that just thinking of ‘Koi Achchha Sa Ladka’ makes you want to read the book again? πŸ™‚ Just kidding.

    Hats off to you if your appetite of Hindi is as voracious as English!

  32. 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 πŸ™‚

  33. Oops! How did I think he would use your alias? Silly me. πŸ™‚

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

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