Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, Venice, Vikram Seth

‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 496 pages; 2004.

An Equal Music is one of those big, beautiful books best appreciated by kicking off your shoes and curling up on the sofa to devour it in one or two longish sittings. It’s even better if it’s accompanied by a steady supply of coffee and cake, while the rain outside patters on the window. That’s not exactly how I read this book, but I could easily imagine doing so, because the story is so captivating and pleasurable.

Essentially it is an epic romance, set in London (and Venice), involving classical musicians. Now this is where I put up my hands and reveal I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music, so some of the terminology and musical references were completely lost on me. But it certainly did not detract from the story, nor the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world presented here. I am sure anyone with a love of classical music would absolutely adore this novel.

The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael, a 30-something violinist, who is the member of a quartet. He makes a little money on the side by teaching music, and has recently fallen into a relationship with one of his students. But it’s clear that Michael is nursing a great hurt. Ten years ago he left the woman he now realises was “the one” and has no idea what happened to her. Then, one day, while on a double-decker bus stuck in Oxford Street traffic, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, who is sitting in the bus opposite.

It’s difficult to say much more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, so if this all sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry. What I can say is that Michael and Julia do, eventually, get back together, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain with which to contend — for both characters.

It’s pretty hard to fault the characterisation in this novel, although I have to admit that Michael, did, at times, feel slightly creepy and obsessive to me and there were occasions when I wondered how much of his narrative I could trust. Similarly, Julia’s motivations are often puzzling, and because we are never told her side of the story, there’s no way of knowing why she behaves the way that she does.

The secondary characters, of which there are quite a few, including Michael’s musical partners, the quartet’s agent, his neighbours and his father, all feel like living, breathing people. And the insights into life as a classical musician — rehearsing, negotiating a record deal, touring in Europe and performing on stage — are fascinating, especially the tensions and rivalries between quartet members.

But it’s the setting, too, which really sold this novel to me. How could I not like a book set in an area of London I know fairly well? Hyde Park in winter has never felt more atmospheric to me than Vikram Seth’s evocative descriptions of it. And the parts set in Venice had me itching to revist the watery city I love so much.

An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.

24 thoughts on “‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth”

  1. Reading your review of this one has made me want to dig out my copy and read it all over again. I loved this when I first read it too. Like you my knowledge of classical music is not great but this book made me want to learn more about that area.


  2. I had a musician friend in highschool who wasn’t a huge reader but who loved this book a ton. I have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy here at home, but it would certainly take more than two sittings to finish it! I attempted it once, but made it to the page 400 mark and then started to lose steam. I know I need to try it again, though I’m not sure when I’ll have the stamina.


  3. I kind of want to dig out my copy too! I’ve played violin forever, so the musical aspect of the novel (and “interpreting” a score) had me totally in thrall. I’m so glad (and relieved) to here it holds up for you philistines 🙂


  4. Oh dear, I haven’t read any Vikram Seth yet … I would have once said I’ll save it for retirement, except I’m now retired and no closer to reading such large tomes. Perhaps I’ll save it for my bedridden dotage – and hope I get there!


  5. Quite right, a book for curling up with. I agree that Michael is not quite all there — he has his own version of Julia’s disability (although I found it more pathos than creepiness). Perhaps my highest compliment for the book is the way that it balances characters, locale and music — there are very few novels that do something like that as successfully. I’m glad you enjoyed it — and it is worth a reread later.


  6. Just finished it … and really loved it.
    Agrees with your feeling about Michael, “clinger” is the word that comes to mind.
    Also agrees about the rest of characters, really well written, especially the temperamental Piers!


  7. Ah, didn’t know you played the violin, Isabella. Yet another string to your bow. *boom boom*
    No, but seriously, thank you for recommending this title to me. I think you, Paperback Reader and KevinfromCanada all told me this book was wonderful — and you were right.


  8. Thanks for recommending this one to me, Kevin. As you point out, it’s a really well-rounded book (“it balances characters, locale and music”), which makes it a rich and rewarding experience. Indeed, it was perfect reading material while holed up on the Norfolk coast a couple of weeks ago.


  9. I have always ummmed and ahhhhed about Vikram seth because lots of people of whom I always like to try the books they rave about, such as your good self my mother and my Gran, have said wonderful things about his books but I am never quite sure! This does sound good though I too am a philistine when it comes to classical music so might not get it!


  10. Thank you for posting this splendid review. I have had my eye on this for ages, sot least because I really enjoyed A Suitable Boy… Great to be reading your blog.
    Thanks for sharing


  11. The music thing doesn’t really matter, does it? Although I’m sure if I knew what a fugue was and was familiar with Bach etc the music aspects might make more sense! LOL.


  12. I think you’d probably like this one, Simon. It’s a big soap opera-ish sort of drama, with really wonderfully alive characters that you get totally involved with. And even though it’s more than 400 pages long, the text is fairly big, so it doesn’t take very long to eat up the pages. I read it in two days.


  13. i read A Suitable Boy many years ago and I have An Equal Music on my TBR pile. Given this review I will aim to read it sooner rather than later. i also have a copy of ‘Golden Gate ‘ on my shelves K a book that Vikram Seth wrote in rhyme, I hope to read this someday soon too.


  14. Guys, I think Micheal’s longing for Julia and all things Julia, his misery, sadness, is what made this book even more interesting and unforgettable for me. I was lucky enough to be reading it in a very pleasant weather too 🙂
    But now I am desperately looking for a similar read which gives me the same kind of experience as An Equal Music did.
    I’ll be more than happy to listen to your suggestions, if you have any suitable ones 🙂
    p.s. A Suitable Boy, someday..


  15. That’s a tricky one, as I expect An Equal Music is a one-off. But someone recommended The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye to me — I’ve not read it myself, so can’t comment as to how similiar it really is to Seth’s book but it might fit the bill given it’s an epic romance with a lot of British-Indian history thrown in…?


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