THE ROSE VARIATIONS by Marisha Chamberlain

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JUL 12, 2009


A variation, musically speaking, is a repetition of a melodic theme, diverging from its origin through changes in harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, or key. In The Rose Variations, playwright and poet Marisha Chamberlain gives us Rose MacGregor, twenty-five and newly arrived at a private Minnesota college for a year-long teaching assignment. Rose is a cellist, but composing music is her true life’s calling. This is the 1970’s, and both her single status and her aspirations in a male-dominated field earn her the vaguely pejorative nickname of “The Girl Composer.”

The Rose Variations chronicles Rose’s life, her efforts at professional success, the relationships that play a strong part in defining her. Her early friends include her still-in-the-closet colleague Alan, and insecure but canny department secretary Frances. Romance soon comes in the form of stonemason Guy, the “right man at the wrong time” whose strong interest soon puts Rose’s professional aspirations at risk.

Following her year of teaching, now apart from Guy, she accepts an invitation to a rural enclave, where we meet Lila Goldensohn, cellist extraordinaire, on professional leave, struggling with her own issues of nonconformity. Lila, as described so vividly by Chamberlain, “gave a disheartening first impression: stiff and unsmiling, her heavy black hair massively subdued in a gold clip like something she’d killed for a trophy. Her brow weighed down over her eyes and her prominent jaw clenched as she lifted her bow.” Lila, sequestered on her farm with a group of women, is a wonderfully original character, one of Chamberlain’s best, sporting a full beard and an acrid, rancid smell, likely one of the reasons she has left the stage, tired of the pressure to look and smell more feminine and “not like myself,” as she confides to Rose. But Lila holds great interest in Rose’s music, which soon develops into interest in Rose herself, an issue that disrupts the harmonious set-up on the farm and plays out in a hilarious, tender, awkward scene, establishing Chamberlain as a brilliant writer with a comic’s deadpan timing and a poet’s evocative use of language.
Leaving the farm to commence a new phase of her life—another of the Rose Variations, if you will—Rose returns to work in the city, the recipient of a grant that allows her to put on a professional chamber performance of her music, one that ultimately serves to establish her as a composer of merit.

The story, which spans six years, is punctuated by dissonance in the form of Rose’s toxic, wayward sister, Natalie, and the defection of Rose’s best friend, a fellow single female in a male-dominated field (medicine), who betrays the sisterhood by not only taking the traditional route of marriage, but transforming into a horrifying bridezilla. Both subplots serve to illustrate to Rose “the path not taken” while adding sizeable tension to the story, although less would have been more here. Natalie, initially pregnant and needy, now dragging along a helpless young daughter whom Rose adores, grows thoroughly detestable, as does, to a lesser extent, the oblivious, wedding-preoccupied friend. Rose’s passive acceptance of their behavior makes it easy for the reader to lose, not gain, sympathy for Rose’s plight.

Playing counterpoint to Rose’s composing is teaching, back at the college where she’s now on track for tenure, as well as on the cusp of having her first symphony premiered by a major orchestra. This is a grand coup, sponsored through her friendship with renown conductor Stephen Orrick. But a visit to Orrick’s Seattle household results in conflict that threatens to derail her personally and professionally. The pivotal scene is riveting, painful and howlingly funny, and swiftly changes the story’s tone from major to minor key.

It should be noted that, although Rose is a cellist and a composer of classical music, this is not a musician’s story, which sometimes works against it. We hear little about her own music practice, nor what music she surrounds herself with. Does she listen to Bartók or Phillip Glass or Schoenberg to engage her composer’s mind, or does she prefer the timeless purity of Bach? Is she a romanticist, a neoclassicist, or an advocate of the un-melodic Twelve-tone style? Chamberlain does, however, do a fine job in detailing Rose’s impressions of observing other musicians, such as Lila.

“The moment she drew her bow across the strings, her stage presence no longer mattered. The sound eclipsed the sight of her, as though the ear could for once overthrow the almighty eye. In the fluid notes that crested and fell, the surging and slowing and rising again, Rose heard, that first time she’d witnessed Lila Goldensohn, what she had previously known only in her head and had never been able to produce in her own playing. The sound emerged as though from a single body, musician and instrument as one, and each note seemed sung.”

What ultimately makes this novel succeed so well is Rose herself, her wry humor, her intelligent observations about life, luck, the nature of friendship and love. The story’s pacing does slow toward the end, when tenure and love are questions whose answers are coyly dangled out of reach a bit too long, but this accounts to nothing more than a few missed notes in an otherwise triumphant composition.

There’s another successful novel I’m reading right now that might be more smoothly paced, hitting all those marketable right notes with mathematical precision, and yet the characters and their plight feel ultimately unmemorable, compared to Rose and company. As I was busy hating Natalie and scorning Rose for her misguided loyalty, it dawned on me that Chamberlain had succeeded in breaking through the barrier that normally separates a fictional character from the real world. Rose, as a living, breathing character, was utterly convincing to me. This, then, is why I highly recommend The Rose Variations.

Because, after all, in good fiction, just as in good music performance, it’s not about the missed notes. Worthy art never is.

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