I bought this book because of the hype around it. If I’d bothered to read the reviews, both supportive and divisive, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But this is a debut novel by a young Australian woman and I wanted to give it a go.
Jena Lin is a twenty-three-year-old classical violinist who as a child prodigy, toured the world. Something happened when she was fourteen and she stopped playing and embarked on a ‘normal’ life. Her relationship with her mother and mentor is fractured. When she resumes her career, she is caught up in a world of rehearsals, performances and practice. In her spare time, she hooks up with just about anyone she meets using sex as a crutch to fill her loneliness. When she is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic orchestra she begins to take control of her life and her comeback on her terms.
The book is essentially the blurb, reading almost like a diary of rotating daily activities of rehearsal, performance and sex, which in my opinion is overly graphic and gratuitous. There’s not much of a plot here and the sex scenes, and there was a lot, detracted from what was really going on with Jena. There was little depth in her relationships and there was only just enough interest for me to find out about what had happened at fourteen. The world of the classical music lifestyle also held me to a point but I found that this too became repetitive.
The problem I had with the book was that while it was detailed in some aspects it was frustratingly short on depth in characters and Jena’s relationships. The characters almost seemed like cardboard cut-outs wheeled out at periodic times. As a reader we knew more about Jena’s day to day life than we did about much else.
On the day of the audition, I wake early to take a long shower, scrubbing off the residual sweat of sleep, washing my hair, shaving my underarms and legs. In the bathroom mirror, I squint at my own reflection.”
Trying to understand Jena, her motivations and the people around her was at times, quite bewildering. In particular, I would have liked to have known more about her relationship with her mother, and her father who is rarely mentioned. Half way through, I almost gave up but I slogged on hoping to get more than a superficial insight, even just a glimmer of emotion from just about anyone.
Yet, I appreciated the themes the author was trying to explore, racism, sexism, female sexual desire, and loneliness. I’d never given a thought to classical music and in particular how most of it is written by men.
“I wonder why none of the music I play has been created by a woman and whether that exclusion was deliberate. What is the point of being any kind of artist if your skin colour or gender excludes you from the choices of old white men, just because you don’t look like them or they don’t see themselves in you?”
I didn’t mind the writing style and it’s slightly reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. However, the characters are largely unlikeable and although there was some limited sympathy for Jena, the book left me frustrated and disillusioned. I know others liked it and but I don’t think it was for me. I guess I just wanted more depth.