Sight Reading: A Novel

  • By Daphne Kalotay
  • Harper
  • 352 pp.

Three people negotiate their complicated connection within the exacting world of classical music.

Sight Reading: A Novel

Sight reading, the title of Daphne Kalotay’s second novel, is also a vital skill that classical performers must master. It is the ability to play a piece of music that you haven’t prepared, or even seen before, note perfect, expression perfect, at first sight. It comes into real-life play when you get a call from the manager of an opera pit orchestra to come to the opera house in one hour, to substitute in a performance for an ill instrumentalist who has a solo part in an opera you’ve never heard, with no rehearsal. This exacting world of classical music is the setting of Kalotay’s novel.

The musicians in Kalotay’s three-part tale are 31-year-old Nicholas Elko, an award-winning composer and conductor, and Remy, an ambitious 22-year-old senior at a music conservatory in Boston. After Nicholas arrives at the conservatory to take up a new position his wife, Hazel, “a woman who understood the tactile beauty of objects,” and their young daughter, Jessie, can hardly settle in before they begin to travel to help Hazel’s ill father. The young Remy, smitten with Nicholas and not put off by his married status, is happy to go back to the Elkos’s apartment for a night of passion. In the morning, upon noticing a photograph, she realizes they have a daughter and she storms out. Though it was only one night, Remy has had an effect on the clueless Nicholas that he doesn’t understand. He is unable to work. His mind keeps returning to her.

Ten years later Hazel, now in her early 40s, is trying to get on with life after divorce while dating and being a mother to Jessie. Remy, now stepmother to Jessie, has put in nine years as principal second violin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Nicholas is still working at the conservatory and laboring to compose his magnum opus. All of them struggle.

Hazel is still looking for love and having to cope with sharing Jessie with Nicholas and Remy. Remy feels stuck in her current position and can’t shake off a sense of always feeling only second best as a violinist. Nicholas, painfully oblivious not only to others but to himself as well, is stuck in mid-career blues. He desperately wants to produce what would essentially be a Scottish sea symphony, which he has been working on forever. He tries remedies to break his block — going to museums, reaching out to a fellow composer in London — until he by chance goes Latin dancing with a complete stranger.

Never is Kalotay so rewarding as the moment she puts Nicholas in Nestor’s dance hall. “Nicholas was conscious of the fact that he was having a new experience, and that it had been a very long time since he had had such a thing. He felt joyful, and though at first he supposed this was due to the syncopated rhythms and the strangers all around him, soon the truth of it dawned on him: it was the freedom of becoming a beginner again. He could make mistakes, try and fail, and it didn’t matter.” In lives as proscribed by demanding, rigid standards as Nicholas’ and Remy’s, reclaiming this freedom is just what he needs. It allows Nicholas to rediscover his joy in music, his creative voice.

Kalotay’s writing is lovely. She can write about the most mundane human activities and paint a vivid picture. Unfortunately, the story often lags and meanders, leaving the reader to wonder if it’s ever really going to go anywhere. But the vividness of the writing helps keep you hanging on.

Choosing to create a story with characters whose lives are in thrall to music makes for a challenging setting. The mercurial nature and transcendence of music-making are very difficult to capture in the medium of words. My hat is certainly off to Kalotay for taking on such a daunting task. Readers who know little or nothing about music will most enjoy peeking into this world. Musicians, who will be naturally drawn to a novel titled Sight Reading, must risk being annoyed by the lack of authenticity in the musicians’ interactions and rehearsal scenes. But they, like non-musicians, may still appreciate Kalotay’s many thoughtfully rendered scenes.

Carolyn Sienkiewicz is a freelance writer and musician.

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