Do you ever wonder what people who play in string quartets are really like? When they come onstage, they seem so ascetic in their concert blacks. Surely, this quality extends to their personal lives. If they are old enough to be married, they must have tidy, quietly happy unions. I must admit to these prejudices, which I didn’t even know I had. So I was shocked when the chief violinist of an ensemble pulls out a cigarette and lights up in the opening pages of Aja Gabel’s brilliant, groundbreaking novel—and then the violinist boinks one of the judges of an upcoming contest and tries to blackmail him.
The message: People in elegant string quartets are just as messed up as everybody else.
In the case of Gabel’s quartet, they’re probably even more messed up than everybody else. There’s brittle Jana; orphaned, sad Brit; bitter Daniel; and rackety, sweet-natured Henry, the youngest and most talented. The Ensemble follows them from ambitious youth to resigned middle age, through hookups and breakups, marriage and children, lonely hotel rooms and crummy apartments. The four characters may not like each other, but they love each other. They are, to their surprise, a family.
Gabel, a musician herself, knows this world intimately. An alarm rings in B-flat, a note one character particularly hates. Their instruments leave marks on them in the form of bruises, divots, “violin hickies” and bad backs, as well as tendonitis—a mere inconvenience to a civilian but destructive for a string musician’s career. Each chapter relates the point of view of one of the musicians, and each section opens with a list of musical pieces that the reader might listen to while reading.
No other novel is quite like The Ensemble.