LJ Talks to First Novelist Aja Gabel | LibraryReads Author Spotlight

Gabel’s thoroughly absorbing debut clarifies the special intimacy that’s inevitably a part of playing in a string quartet, but it goes a step further. As Gabel noted in a phone conversation with LJ, “This setup is ripe for plumbing human ­relationships.”

Imperious Jana, empathetic Brit, golden-boy Henry, and pugnacious Daniel: in Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, they aren’t just friends and colleagues but the Van Ness Quartet, listening to one another every moment to create great music as one. Gabel’s thoroughly absorbing debut clarifies the special intimacy that’s inevitably a part of playing in a string quartet, but it goes a step further. As Gabel noted in a phone conversation with LJ, “This setup is ripe for plumbing human ­relationships.”

That perception came to Gabel long before she began her novel. As a young cellist, she once studied with a string quartet and was astonished when they had an argument in front of her. “It didn’t occur to me until then that they were real people who had to live together and work together,” she explains. “Their career depended on their relationship.” As with all string quartets, that relationship might have been fraught with personal tensions or financial worry, but the members had to make it work or the group would fail.

Not surprisingly, Van Ness Quartet members see themselves as family, something generally missing from their lives. First violinist Jana barely speaks with her alcoholic mother and shepherds her group with steely ambition; “she has the personality to be a first violinist,” concedes Gabel. Cellist Daniel’s parents are uncomprehending and his association with second violinist Brit complicated; she’s lost both parents and can be too passive, “working through a journey that makes her a good musician,” as Gabel asserts. They all fret that viola prodigy Henry will leave, but he’s committed to the group especially because of his friendship with Jana, who values him not for his talent but for himself.

Further accentuating the book’s theme, Henry’s marriage to solo violinist ­Kimiko requires some tough juggling of careers and children, and if Kimiko has some long-­suffering moments, she finally “gets to do all the things she wants to do but maybe not all at once,” observes Gabel. The author offers some especially perceptive insights into evolving human needs and desires, perhaps because of her own personal concerns.

“I am 35, and I was really troubled in the last five years thinking about the imperative for women to have children, what we give up, what we are supposed to want,” she explains, clarifying that “this is a story of love and growth over time because that’s what’s really interesting to me.” Personal loss, with both her brother and her father having died when she was young, further compelled Gabel to look squarely at “what time gives us,” and readers get a visceral sense of its gifts and burdens as the narrative unfolds over nearly two decades.

Before she began her PhD in creative writing, Gabel had written only short stories and was terrified by the mountainous challenge of long fiction. Then instructor Antonya Nelson asked what she knew enough about to write a book, and the answer was obvious. “I had just played so long, it didn’t seem like knowledge, just a piece of what I did,” says Gabel. “It was great advice for a debut novelist.”

Throughout, Gabel beautifully communicates how music is made and how it sounds. That’s a challenging task for any writer, which she accomplished by listening obsessively to each piece she describes to assure herself of technical mastery but then “connect[ing] that knowledge to the person playing. It’s not a major to minor shift but how Daniel thinks about this movement.” In the end, Gabel hopes readers will be inspired to listen to a quartet—“especially if they’ve never done so. It’s not as big as an orchestra, or as weird and unusual as a soloist. It’s a conversation.” Like the one Gabel has with her readers.—Barbara Hoffert 

Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the May 2018 list at ow.ly/a8sm30jDzU1 and contact libraryreads.org/for-library-staff/ to make your own nomination.

Photo by Darcie Burrell

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