After reading the sad, touching memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, I was ready for some lighter fiction. Daphne Kalotay’s book, Sight Reading, appealed to me because it balanced romantic intrigue with a startling view of how performing musicians live, think, and create.
This novel initially introduces us to a happily married composer/conductor, Nicholas Elko, who raves about his wife Hazel and their happy life with their daughter Jessie. Lovely Hazel shines, and Nicholas refers to her as his “Grace Kelly.” The reader can question Nicholas’s morals in short order as he leaves his marriage for Remy, a younger woman. Nicholas is a complex, gifted musician, scarred by a childhood without the unwavering love of a true family.
Hazel’s confidence is shattered by the end of her marriage, and she teeters on the edge of despair. It would be easy to condemn the other woman, but Kalotay paints such a vibrant and appealing portrait of Remy, that the reader is able to forgive what Remy initially calls a “selfish mistake.” Remy and Nicholas, to their credit, both feel remorse, but find their love ultimately too powerful to resist. Nicholas and Remy, a violinist, discuss the power of music to touch the soul. They are artists seeking ways to feel limitless in their craft. In a recent interview with Marc Foster, Daphne Kalotay discusses the challenges of writing a novel rooted in the performing arts. Kalotay notes that it is a difficult to recreate sound through language alone and to recreate the violinist’s experience without losing the reader. On her website, Kalotay admits that music was a big part of her life growing up, when she learned to play the violin, piano, and then viola. Her practical music experience was combined with extensive research, including interviews with music professionals.
I was fascinated by the portrait of Remy’s life at the conservatory, where she practised until her neck developed an abscess and fingertips were sore. Her journey as a musician was as much mental as physical as she has to learn to play without fear, improvising where necessary, and truly understanding the piece she is playing. Life is not happily ever after for any of the book’s characters, as the journey is complicated by the challenges of ordinary life. Remy becomes complacent as second chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and even Nicholas, a musical success in the eyes of the world, struggles with a symphony and his inner demons.
For Nicholas, parenting and romancing are mysterious arts and this is sometimes a source of comic relief. Nicholas is at a loss dealing with his 13 year old daughter, who has stored away the Barbies she had once worshipped “in a mass grave” and now spends hours locked in the bathroom. This “pouting female felt like an allegation against him.” Remy finds her romantic illusions threatened, and ultimately makes significant life choices based on her devotion to her stepdaughter Jessie. The narrative moves back and forth from past to present, covering three distinct time periods, and the book becomes a meditation on aging, regret and ultimately forgiveness.
Highly recommended. This book is an easy read that will tug at your heartstrings, reveal the power of music to heal and restore, and make you revel in the power of love.