Jana. Brit. Daniel. Henry. They would never have been friends if they hadn’t needed each other. They would never have found each other except for the art which drew them together. They would never have become family without their love for the music, for each other.
Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other—by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.
Following these four unforgettable characters, Aja Gabel’s debut novel gives a riveting look into the high-stakes, cutthroat world of musicians, and of lives made in concert. The story of Brit and Henry and Daniel and Jana, The Ensemble is a heart-skipping portrait of ambition, friendship, and the tenderness of youth.
Author: Aja Gabel
“How were these terrible, beautiful people worth excluding entire sectors of living? Why were they—once unchosen, regular people, colliding in regular ways with other regular people—now linked to each other inextricably, tied by old binds, each breath wound around the breath of three others, like a monster, like a miracle?”
This book was absolutely beautiful—like music. The characters were lovable and flawed and they grew and changed, the language was lyrical, and the metaphors and themes were perfectly balanced. I didn’t want it to end!
“They were kindred in their prideful loneliness, the stubborn fermata held blankly in their centers that could just go on forever. They pushed their fermatas against each other, and were something close to satisfied.”
Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry find one another while pursuing their master’s certificate at conservatory. They commit to a career together as a professional quartet, and life begins. The book is divided into four sections and spans over twenty years, showing us their journey as friends, as professionals, and as people.
All four of them have distinct traits, problems, hopes, and fears. I love the way these morph, soften, and sharpen throughout their lives. There are late chapters that, if read next to early chapters, would seem totally incongruous. But the evolution is natural and really beautiful. I think this is true of all people—we are young, we grow, and we change. We are still ourselves, but we are very different people.
“’I think that’s what happens when you love people more, or more people. In here gets bigger.’ Daniel tapped his hand on his own bullish chest. ‘But out here has to get a little bit smaller,’ he said, sweeping his hand around the room.”
The book had several strong, recurring themes: that you sometimes have to break something to make it better, that love and friendship is a choice you have to make over and over, that the versions of ourself we are today are composed of all our past selves. I loved these characters, and I wasn’t ready to be finished with their stories.
This was the Girls’ Night In book club pick for June 2018, and I’m so glad. I’m not sure I would have found my way to it if they hadn’t chosen it! This is also going to be an incredible book for discussion—so much to unpack.