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The Ensemble is a likable debut novel with little plot but a whole lot of feelings

Aja Gabel’s debut is a lovely and low-stakes portrait of a friendship across 14 years.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel Penguin Press

Aja Gabel’s debut, The Ensemble, is rich and quiet. It’s the kind of book you will love if you just want to hear about how friendships change microscopically over time, and the kind of book you will find extremely boring if you’re concerned with such niceties as “plot” and “things happening.”

Reading this book is, in a way, similar to the emotional effects of reading very good fanfiction, in that the idea of action is set aside as unimportant, while relationships are paramount, emotion is always sincere and deeply felt rather than ironic and detached, and metaphor underlies everything.

I don’t intend for that comparison to insult or to trivialize. Personally, I am very down to hear about how friendships change microscopically over time, I admire good fanfiction, I will take relationships over plot any day, and I love The Ensemble.

The Ensemble concerns the four members of a string quartet over the span of their time together, from 1994, when they are just about to graduate from conservatory and launch their professional careers, to 2010, when one of the four departs. In between, the four play at various concerts, make their way through various romantic entanglements and family bereavements, and weather the ups and downs of life as professional musicians.

The ensemble here is the overarching metaphor for how friend groups and found families reconcile themselves into an overarching whole. Each of the four main characters is an archetype, a distinct voice that the group must integrate into a complex and coherent sound.

Jana, the first violinist, is a Type A striver forever hustling to keep from ending up like her aspiring-actress mother. Henry, the violist, is a prodigy whose easy success by turns astonishes the rest of the ensemble and fills them with envy. Daniel, the cellist, is a struggling underdog who came to music later than anyone else and with less money, and is unwilling to lose the ensuing chip on his shoulder. And Brit, the second violinist, is a sweet, orphaned romantic who longs more than anything to build a new family to replace the one she lost.

The clashing sensibilities of the four members of the quartet provide the forward momentum that drives the story. Henry’s world of options infuriates Daniel, who feels penned in by life; Daniel’s cynicism breaks gentle Brit’s heart; and Jana’s single-minded drive annoys everyone.

Novels this cerebral and literary often take refuge in cheap cynicism, so when it ultimately becomes clear that Brit’s romanticism will win the day, it’s a pleasant surprise. The Ensemble believes deeply in love and in the value of emotion. It’s just that it can only understand emotion through long, analytical passages, preferably rendered through the metaphor of chamber music. It’s a book with Brit’s heart and Jana’s ability to express it.

When the ensemble briefly fails, at the beginning of its career, “the concert happened without any of them being there at all, really,” because driven Jana rushes everyone, Henry the prodigy “makes a wild, embarrassing show of his supporting voice,” angry Daniel gets “messy, student-like,” and romantic Brit is struck by the distance between the ensemble and finds “the physical truth of it” to be “shattering.”

But when the ensemble succeeds, it’s because the members reconcile themselves to a singular idea:

I love you, even when you are your worst self, even if it’s you who takes this competition win away from us. I love you because we all love each other because we have to. It’s in some contract somewhere that no one ever saw or signed. A lived contract. I love you because if I don’t, there’s nothing, empty chairs, a dead man, fluttering paper music.

It’s the love these four friends have for each other that makes them an ensemble, and not even Daniel’s cynicism can cheapen that bond.

What a sweet and welcome throwback. What a radical love story.