“Fugitive Love”: On Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’

At one point in An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, violinist Michael Holmes is invited to pianist Julia’s birthday party. He gifts her a bonsai, which he describes as needing to be watered every two days. If this routine is broken, the bonsai will die.

I see that as a summation of Michael and Julia’s relationship.

An Equal Music is a love story. Here is the blurb on Goodreads:

The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians. Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl. Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

Against the magical backdrop of Venice and Vienna, the two lovers confront the truth about themselves and their love, about the music that both unites and divides them, and about a devastating secret that Julia must finally reveal. With poetic, evocative writing and a brilliant portrait of the international music scene, An Equal Music confirms Vikram Seth as one of the world’s finest and most enticing writers. 

I had a hard time acquiring this book. I ordered a second-hand copy from a store online, but they couldn’t deliver it because of the Coronavirus lockdown. I tried ebooks next, with no success. I finally downloaded the audiobook version from Audible. For a novel about music, listening to the audio version certainly makes a lot of sense. I’ll get into that later, though.

I just want to write down my thoughts after finishing this book.

Spoiler alerts!

The Love Story

Michael is the second violinist in the Maggiore Quartet. Julia is a concert pianist who is slowly going deaf. Their relationship is extremely…intense, is perhaps the best word to describe it. It is built on old memories and regrets and missed opportunities. Michael, in particular, seems desperate to hold onto Julia the second time around, to an almost irritating degree.

From the very offset, Julia is hesitant to rekindle their relationship. She’s a wife and a mother. Expecting her to jeopardise that is asking a lot. Nevertheless, they get back together, keeping their affair a secret from Julia’s husband.

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy reading about their romance.

Maybe it’s because their love seems almost idealised. Michael puts her on a pedestal, and Julia is constantly torn between him and her husband James. While they clearly covet each other and care for each other, there’s something distant about their relationship. As a reader, I feel like a stranger hearing about their activities from a third party observer. That sounds harsh, too harsh, perhaps, because I did enjoy this novel. Their relationship doesn’t ring true.

There’s never a moment of silliness, of friendship. I don’t get the sense that they know each other’s favourite foods or embarrassing childhood stories. What’s missing is the intimacy of the domestic. The only time the story comes anywhere close to this when Julia wants to buy Michael a sweater she thinks he’ll like, but that scene is interrupted by some drama.

As a result of this, it’s very hard for me to root for them. By the mid-point of the book, I was actually wondering if one of them was going to die. Hoping, perhaps.

And there’s the matter of Michael’s clinginess. If you’ve read this novel, I ask you: do you also think Michael is really needy? I took the implication of the bonsai scene I talked about earlier as an image for their relationship. Michael can’t function when Julia is keeping her distance from him. He often hangs out around her son’s school around closing time, in hopes that he’d run into her (is that stalking?). Towards the end, when Julia explicitly tells him she doesn’t want to see him (MULTIPLE TIMES), Michael greets her at the school again. It’s like that desperate ex in your DMs who does not stop spamming you.

By this point, I’d really lost interest in the romance. But for me, the book was not about the love story. It was about the music.

The Music

I actually wanted to read it because I love European classical music. I’m learning to play the violin, and I’d heard really good things about how this book handles the subject of describing music. And I have to say, it’s spectacular.

Consuming it in audio format, as I did, made the experience even richer. Often, scenes would be peppered with string or piano melodies. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook. It transports you.

Seth’s descriptions of classical music have been widely praised by experts in the field. The novel was actually inspired by Seth’s then-partner, Philippe HonorĂ©, himself a violinist.

The novel references a lot of pieces including the Trout Quintet, The Lark Ascending, The Art of Fugue, and String Quintet in C Minor. I actually enjoyed the music from the book so much that I found a Spotify playlist with the pieces from the book. I’m listening to it now as I type.

Closing Thoughts

In the book, Michael describes his romance with Julia as a “fugitive love”, a phrase that struck me as very poignant. That’s what it is, a romance they have to steal after their time has passed. Ultimately this is a story about the one that got away. The book wonders what could have been. Therein lies its tragedy.

I didn’t hate the book. Michael and Julia’s affair grated on my nerves, but I didn’t hate it. The story itself has a lot going for it. I wish certain parts had been expanded on a bit more (we’re always teased with Michael’s past in Vienna, but I would have liked to read more about it. The book never delivers). But I loved the interactions with Michael’s string quartet, the group endeared themselves to me. The book’s great strength is its attention to musical detail, so if you enjoy European classical, you will love An Equal Music.

By the way, you can check out the book’s playlist below. I highly recommend doing that!

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