An Unfinished Score
by Elise Blackwell
Unbridled Books, 2010
264 pages (hardcover and eBook; paperback coming April 2011)
Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score opens with Suzanne, a concert violist, fixing dinner for her family when a radio broadcast informs her of her lover’s death in a plane crash. Her affair with the celebrated conductor was a secret, and thus she grieves in secret, until it becomes obvious that the affair was known to at least one other person—the lover’s widow, who blackmails her into arranging the dead man’s only composition, a concerto for viola. Was the composition a message for her—a musical declaration of love, perhaps, or a challenge to pursue her own composition dreams? Suzanne clutches this remainder of Alex like a pillow that retains his scent, wrestling to give justice to the music, to his memory, and to her illicit relationship. Submerged in her unspoken grief, trying to help her best friend and fellow musician raise a deaf daughter, and assessing what is left of her marriage to a talented but distant composer, she faces identity crises on many fronts.
When Suzanne wakes in the middle of the night, as she does every night, the fear that gnaws at her after she sorts through her quotidian worries is that her life will be a paltry version of ordinary. It will be unremarkable yet lacking the common rewards of living like everyone else.
Suzanne is a sympathetic character because, despite her exotic career, she is everywoman. She works, she fixes dinner, she grieves a miscarriage, she struggles to relate to her mother-in-law, she teaches her friend’s daughter to bake a cake, she makes self-centered choices one day and selfless ones the next. Like most of us, she doesn’t see how much she has going for her, and she tends to seek her happiness from those around her instead of herself. But her story captures our attention because of the fascinating details of her profession—the performances in world-class venues, the rendezvous in exotic locales, the debates about social media and music, the trips to get the bows rehaired by a technician with an uncanny amateur ability to “shrink” composers.
Blackwell has done her musical research. Readers with no interest in the mechanics of sound or composition may find the abundant musical terminology tedious, but for those with a musical background, it undergirds the story with authenticity: a household of professional musicians talks about music on a different level than the non-musical family, and the dialogue here is believable as well as interesting. The musical strength goes beyond the plot and dialogue into the very structure of the book, which is presented in three movements like the concerto Suzanne struggles to complete on Alex’s behalf. And then, of course, there is the play on words in the title.
The novel is told in the present tense, rendering an immediacy to Suzanne’s grief and setting apart the sudden flashbacks of stolen moments with him that return to her, unbidden, as she tries to move on. The ending is satisfying without revealing all and without restoring all to its original condition. It’s also, like real life, less dramatically climactic and more of a thoughtful slowing; think Beethoven sonata over Haydn symphony.
This is another excellent offering from Unbridled Books. I have interacted with Elise Blackwell several times on Twitter, and she seems one of those genuinely warm, “normal” writers, which certainly isn’t a requirement for writing outstanding fiction but does make the writer/reader relationship a lot more enjoyable. Her previous novels include Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and Grub, all of which are now on my TBR list.
Cross-posted from www.mindywithrow.com.