The Ensemble

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 May 2019

Member Reviews

I think the most important thing one should ask themselves before reading this is Am I interested in a book about a string quartet? Because I think I thought that this would be a book about people and relationships and how those people also happen to be involved in music but this is very much a book about music and then about people.

This is written BEAUTIFULLY. The author is so, unbelievably talented. There is a scene in which two adults are building a fort with children and more than anything I was struck by how a scene like that could be written with such eloquence. And because of this, I would read anything Aja Gabel wrote on any topic. I was never close to DNFing even though Idk that I can say I really cared very much about what was going on. And the writing about music is stunning. I didn't even know to which piece of music they were referring most of the time, and I still felt invested in those moments.

Sometimes, somehow, narration just feels so much farther away than usual. I don't know if anyone knows what I mean by that. But I have read maybe ten books in my life where instead of a close up look, I feel like I'm watching a story from outer space. Maybe it's that it's third person narration on four different characters spanning like 20 years? I WANTED to be closer and couldn't be. I couldn't empathize with the characters until the last quarter or so of the book and by then it was just familiarity with them that made me do so. They had injuries and divorces and marriages and arguments and I just straight up did not care about any of it until so late in the game. There is also very little dialogue and that never helps me.
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A beyond beautiful novel about the power of friendships. I've been turning recently to novels that tell the story of how close relationships evolve over time. As a former musician, the musical theme of The Ensemble brought me right back to the days of rehearsal friendships. A wonderful debut; masterful character study; a fave of this year.
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This was a very enjoyable read that mixed music and community and friendship in a way I haven't experienced before. It delves into the lives of the members of a quartet and brings you along deep into their journey. If you like friendship group stories, or anything musical, you will undoubtedly find this of interest.
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Thank you to the Publisher and Netgalley for providing me an advanced review copy of The Ensemble. Unfortunately, this book was not for me. 
I am a lover of literary fiction books.  They are my favorite genre to read.  I enjoy poetic prose, layered character studies, the intricate studies of human relationships.   I'm ok with the plot not being the strongest element of the writing.  
I just didn't feel any investment in these characters. Their development was uneven. I felt no real connection to any of them. They showed spotty connection to each other. 
I also felt that the writing was over-stylized. I wanted to like the description of the performances that demonstrates the synergy of each player into the group. In the end, was left annoyed. Like, ok already!  I felt....bored.  
Beautiful cover!
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We chose this as a 2018 Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide selection:
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As a musician, to find a book like "The Ensemble" is an unparalleled delight.  There are very few books that reach into your soul, that you can identify with on such a deep plane.  All professional and amateur musicians will feel an affinity with this book.  The hours of practicing, the closeness to ensemble members, the important performances.  I found it hard to believe that someone could wrap such a story around the true intricacies of the unexplainable dedication of ensemble members.  Not sure it would be everyone's cup of tea, but it certainly resonated with me.  I loved it.
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The book is just as good as the cover y'all. SO great! I loved it. I finished it in a day. I loved the characters and the slow burn of their lives in the quartet. (I like books with a slow burn and minimal climaxes). I can't say that I understand a lot about chamber music but the writing felt very lyrical when she was talking about their music. If you know anything about violins or cellos, you might get more out of those parts and enjoy it even more. Such a great book. Multiple POVs. Fast read! I also LOVED the very last section about love (during the wedding).
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I have been hearing a lot about this review across all forms of social media and was very excited to have the chance to give it a read.  Let me just say I was not disappointed.  Books that focus on characters development are books I often fall in love with and cannot put down.  The Ensemble followed four classical musicians in a quartet over a period of time.  I could not help but get lost in their stories.  I am not sure what it is like to be involved in the classical music scene but this book made me feel like I was there and a part of the group.  I am still getting over the fact that this is just a debut novel for Aja Gabel.  Gabel's writing was gorgeous, poetic, and hooked me right from the beginning.  Also, let's talk about that cover art.  This book is stunning in so many ways and no one will regret picking it up!
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THE ENSEMBLE by Aja Gabel is also about friendship although this quartet is especially bound by their love of music and care for one another. Gabel herself is a former cellist and expertly captures the concerns and uncertainty as these string musicians try to establish their careers. The novel begins in San Francisco in 1994 as Jana, who plays first violin, starts to form the group with Henry, an immensely gifted viola player. Brit, an orphan, plays second violin and has a secret relationship with Daniel who is an older cello player and conflicted about choosing music given the poverty he faced as a child. Each shares a part of his or her life and the dueling egos, maturing talent and competitive disappointments experienced over the next 18 years.

Like its beautiful and eye-catching cover, THE ENSEMBLE is a performance to savor, appealing especially to aspiring musicians. This debut work received starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly and was another LibraryReads selection for May.

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Book Review: Ensemble 
Author: Aja Gabel
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 15, 2018

What a gorgeous book! It is about the members of a string quartet, and their ups and downs over the years. Beautiful language, detailed characters and a long, intertwined plot. 

As a musician, I particularly enjoyed it. Some of my favorite music is the string quartets by Beethoven and Mozart. Highly, highly recommend. 

Reviews will be posted as well on Goodreads, Facebook, Instagram and Amazon.
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The Ensemble fell flat for me. I love the cover and had heard such great things about the book but it definitely felt like a debut novel to me. There was too much time spent in the interior lives of the characters and even after that I felt very little investment in any of them. The story like the characters felt self indulgent and self absorbed. The concept was great but it fell apart in execution for me.
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I wavered between 3 and 4 stars and if possible, I would've liked to go with 3.5 stars. This was a wonderful book for anyone fascinated by the world of classical music and the inner-world and highs and lows of being a professional musician. I enjoyed the references to the different pieces being played and the descriptions of how each individual player approached their craft and their passion, and how everything wasn't glamourized. This story follows the four members of a chamber quartet and each chapter oscillates between their point of views. I would describe it as a coming-of-age saga for the four individuals. I found the story to be engaging, but almost too melodramatic. I believe this was the first novel from this author and you could sense it in the writing style. The voice, at times, read like someone who was trying to envision how adults would feel, without being there themselves. Almost as if they were shooting for artistic and dramatic and not quite getting there. I did enjoy the book but there was just something slightly missing to push it to the next level for me.

I received a copy of this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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This was JUST what I was in the mood for. I loved all 4 members of the ensemble, perfect friend/lover summer drama. I ended up skimming over some of the music terms and specifics, but overall I loved this.
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A fresh new look at a coming of age story--you don't get to see many musically focused novels, so this was a great change of pace.  I enjoyed it a lot!
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My BookBrowse review:

Gabel's debut novel follows the members of a string quartet over 15 years as they try to figure out their personal and professional lives.

In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel, The Ensemble, with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. 

An alternating intimate third-person perspective gives glimpses into these main characters' inner lives. Jana grew up poor in Los Angeles with an alcoholic single mother who had a rotating cast of boyfriends. Brit's parents, themselves amateur musicians, died while she was in college. Henry was a teen prodigy who started college early, while Daniel feels like he has to work twice as hard as the others just to keep up. Jana and Henry, who met at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, sometimes wonder if they should have remained soloists – a much more glamorous career choice. For all four musicians, the question of whether money equates to happiness is a pressing one: they spend a lot of time thinking about how they sound together, but not very much considering whether they each truly have "inner harmony." 

The Esterhazy competition provides a couple of the novel's key turning points. Brit and Daniel have recently broken up after two years together, and Jana does something extreme to try to get the quartet a leg up on the competition. But they don't even make it past the first round. With so much going on between and within them – Jana's worry over her mother, Brit's sadness at being an orphan, and her tension with Daniel after their romance ends – it's not really a surprise that things fall apart while they're playing. By the time we meet up with the quartet again in the autumn of 1998, though, things have changed. They've all moved to New York City together, and two of them are in new relationships. They're all more confident musicians now, and their rendition of Shostakovich wins them the Esterhazy string quartet competition that year. 

Personal events abut wider world events in particularly effective ways, as when Jana has to attend a family funeral the day after the start of the Iraq War in 2003. We see the ways that time strains these musicians' relationships and even their bodies – Henry develops tendonitis and Jana has persistent back pain. The move to New York makes them question what they're looking for when the city feels like such a letdown. I can think of other books with a similar setup, following four university friends as they navigate early adulthood in a big city (such as Invincible Summer by Alice Adams and Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), but The Ensemble is unique in its evocative descriptions of classical music and its bittersweet reflections on how time changes us:

"As the sad second movement started, Henry realized that the way they played now, compared to the way they played during their graduation concert, was different and better. They'd arrived somewhere. Playing was no longer cathartic, that strange mixture of pain and pleasure one became used to in one's twenties and thirties. It was no longer a means to an end, a way to go from stifled to expressed, from caught to free, from panicked to all right. Instead, playing was like lifting a sheet to reveal the secret, beautiful gears and pulleys at play beneath the work of living - that was it, like letting everyone in on a secret, instead of working their own way out of one. It was a different kind of relief."

Especially early on, there is a lot of backstory and internal contemplation, and more scenes and dialogue would help us to engage with the characters. I also felt that the point-of-view could have changed a bit more frequently; the first quarter of the book is from Jana and Brit's perspectives, and for a while I worried we'd never hear from the male characters, which would be a strangely biased view of proceedings. But once I got past this point, the novel really hit its stride, and I came to care about these musicians and sympathize with their longings to make the most of their lives. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art into the rest of life.
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As appears on

Aja Gabel’s debut novel, The Ensemble, had me from the start.  Do you ever read the first few pages of a book and just know that you’re going to love it?  That was my experience with The Ensemble.  Every word, every paragraph, every page gripped me indescribably.  It’s been a while since I’ve been truly pulled into a book.  The Ensemble was my most anticipated release of this year and it did not disappoint!

Music plays a big role in The Ensemble– not just in its plot, but in its development too.  The story ebbs and flows like the most beautiful of melodies, and Gabel’s writing style has a distinct musical quality; it’s lyrical and streamlike but abrupt at all the right places, just like the music her characters play.  Not only that, but it moves at the perfect pace: fast enough to suck me in, but slow enough to enjoy every single word.

The four main characters, Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry are written in harmony of one another; they are all heavily flawed but those flaws help to complement the other characters.  I can’t say I fell in love with them, but I was definitely able to relate to each of them on some level.  The novel spans about twenty years or so, and I enjoyed seeing how Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry changed over time.  I was particularly drawn to Henry, the young prodigy who never makes mistakes, who has it easy, until suddenly he doesn’t.  The book is divided up pretty evenly in terms of which characters the chapters focus on, but I’d say the main focus was on Henry and his many struggles.

I adored Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and looked forward to any spare time I had so that I could return to it!  Fans of character-driven novels will fall in love with The Ensemble.
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Gabel's writing is subtle--high-brow and relatable at the same time. I was completely drawn in by the characters, even when their stories stretched and weren't particularly plot driven. This is an amazing debut.
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The Van Ness String Quartet is a young group studying at the Conservatory in San Francisco.  The two women and two men devote their lives to perfecting their skill and building a career in the highly competitive, ever decreasing world of classical music performance.  This novel describes the musicians' professional and personal lives, how the closeness of working together spills over and sometimes threatens to derail them.

Aja Gabel writes informatively on music, musicians, and the institutions and people who populate that rarified world.  The wealthy patrons are there, along with the descriptions of the toll of working hard takes on the characters' physical and emotional lives.  Brit and Daniel have an intimate connection, and Jana and Henry are likened to close siblings.  Jana is the leader of the pack.  She is organized and clear thinking when it comes to seeing the future and what they need to do to get into the superior positions they seek.  Jana has no interest in a romantic connection.  Her family history is such that she avoids attachments with men other Henry.  They understand and need each other for comfort and companionship.  It works well for them.

Brit and Daniel have a mercurial relationship.  They need each other, but Daniel does not want the encumbrance of a committed relationship like marriage.  He and Brit often fight and are at odds even though the attraction is strong and steady.

The storyline skips years and takes them to higher levels of professional accomplishments.  Eventually, they travel the world.  The story then focuses on the characters and their personal turmoil.  Here, I got stuck with the story.  I think that a tighter take on that aspect would serve the novel better.  

Thank you, NetGalley and Riverhead for the opportunity to read this ARC.
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I enjoyed this book and the story of four musicians. It is one of those books in which not much really happens but it spans many years and is a great character study. It was beautifully written. But I felt there were just parts my eyes would just skip over and that there was a lot of filler that got tedious.
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One of my favorite's of the year! THE ENSEMBLE is a stunning debut, almost unbelievable in its range, lyricism and beauty .I adored this book, wanted to return to it night after night, and am desperate for it to be out so I can talk to other people about it.
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