AN UNFINISHED SCORE by Elise Blackwell

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SEP 23, 2010


Classical music, and the games of evasion and deception we play with the ones we love, create the engine that drives this lyrical, well-crafted story by acclaimed author Elise Blackwell. The premise is simple but compelling: Career violist Suzanne hears over the radio about the death of her lover, orchestral conductor Alex Elling, in a plane crash. She can only grieve secretly amid the members of her household, which include emotionally-distant husband Ben, irreverent best friend and fellow musician Petra and her young, deaf daughter. Suzanne soldiers on, rehearsing with her string quartet, playing second mother to Petra’s daughter, until a phone call from her former lover’s widow changes her life a second time. Suzanne and Alex’s secret affair was no secret, in the end, and now his widow extorts a favor from Suzanne: to finish the viola concerto started by her deceased husband. Desperate to keep the affair secret, even now, Suzanne reluctantly agrees.

Blackwell, who directs the University of South Carolina MFA program, excels in bringing small moments and insights to life through vivid detail that keeps the prose fresh and surprising. Pick a page, randomly, and odds are you’ll find some engrossing anecdote or pearl of wisdom about music, life, or class distinction, such as in the following:

“The houses she passes proclaim upper-middle-class respectability. Though Suzanne knows that unhappiness can invade any home, seeping through its cracks as easily as the scent of honeysuckle or skunk, and that all people are deeply strange when you really know them, it’s hard to imagine anything but perfectly browning apple pies, badminton games in the backyard, dinners eaten in the comfortable knowledge of growing stock portfolios.”

Initially the story’s pacing is languorous, chronicling Suzanne’s grief, her attempts to move forward, interspersed with flashbacks to her past, her time with Alex. An intriguing side story is the deafness Petra’s daughter suffers from, and Petra’s exploration of cochlear implants as a possible auditory enhancement, paving the way for some interesting introspection on the concept of hearing in general, and what it would be like to be forever closed off to sound, to music.

The story provides a wealth of information on classical music and its composers, the inner workings of a string quartet, the challenges of being a career musician. Other reviewers have argued that Blackwell used a heavy hand in the number of digressions about classical composers and concerts attended with Alex, but as a classical music enthusiast, I have to say I enjoyed that aspect of the story. Like Vikram Seth’sAn Equal Music, this is a music story for musicians.

The only false note came up in a flashback scene where Alex has used his conductor’s influence to have rising star violinist Joshua Felder (think Joshua Bell) perform, blindfolded, in a San Francisco hotel room, while Alex makes love to Suzanne in a bed four feet away. It seems to me a professional violist in a hotel room with one of the world’s top violinists would be far more interested in observing his performance and technique up close (and four feet is pretty darned close) versus the tawdry overtures—no pun intended—of a philandering conductor whose species, in general, is despised by orchestral musicians (add in the dictatorial nature, the seven-figure salary, and now you know why).

Could this really have happened? Sure, anything goes in a world where talent, ambition, desire and influence collide. But that Suzanne should remember the experience (and remember she does, referencing it three times in the story) as something romantic and exciting felt disingenuous, out of character for both her and the story. Further, a reference to Alex’s guest-conducting stint that night with the San Francisco “Philharmonic” (it’s the San Francisco Symphony) left me wondering uneasily if this were an attempt at fictionalizing, or an error that should have been caught.

That is my only rant. The rest is great stuff, fiction that strikes the perfect balance between literary and commercial. I enjoyed learning about Suzanne’s past, her career trajectory, her prospects and fears for the future, unsure of whether or not it would include husband Ben, whom apparently has plenty of hidden issues of his own. The other females in the story are masterfully drawn, in the form of Petra, a lively, opinionated, irreverent sort, raising a deaf daughter, sometimes taking rash action that serves to complicate everyone’s life. Olivia, Alex’s widow, is a wondrously vile creature, elegant, decisive and vindictive, and the reader, like Suzanne, can’t help but feel a mix of both admiration and dislike any time the woman sweeps into the room.

The novel is presented in the form of a concerto, with three movements. In the third part, the Appassionato, the story takes on a breathless, page-turning pace. As Suzanne puzzles through Alex’s concerto which Olivia plans to have premiered with a major orchestra, Suzanne is allowed a glimpse into who her lover was, deep inside, in a place incapable of lying. In his work, she searches for some last message from him. Her deepening confusion at the ambivalence is wonderfully depicted, turning the story into a psychological mystery of sorts, while, concurrently, dynamics in Suzanne’s personal life provide her with the same jolts of “who is this person I thought I knew so well?”

The story’s climax is well-paced and satisfying, casting new light on all that came before it, deepening each character, enriching the story as a whole. A coda neatly clears up loose bits and leaves us with one final image of music and the redemptive power it offers to those who serve it. An engrossing read on an evocative subject, An Unfinished Score should please fans of Blackwell’s previous writing and win her some new fans (myself included).

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