An Equal Music
(1999), a novel by international-bestselling author Vikram Seth, tells the story of a violinist who begins an affair with an old lover and learns a devastating secret. The book received the 1999 Crossword Book Award for Fiction and has been well received by both critics and general readers. Seth is known for making barely-veiled references to himself and his friends and family in his published works, which adds depth and authenticity to his narratives. A prolific novelist and poet, he has won numerous literary awards.
The protagonist, Michael Holme, is a violinist with the highly successful Maggiore Quartet. A gifted musician, he plays the second violin. However, he can’t forget the woman he used to love, Julia McNicholl. She moved away many years ago and married someone else. She now has a small child. Michael can’t meet anyone else because it’s a very insular world and he already knows everyone in the music scene. He concentrates now on his music.
Michael studied at a music school in Vienna, where he first met Julia. There, he embarrassed himself by failing at a performance onstage, leading him to abandon Julia in his humiliation. He’s always regretted letting her go.
However, he might have a second chance. Michael leaves Wigmore Hall one evening after playing with his fellow musicians—Helen, the viola player; Piers, her brother and first violinist; and Billy, the cellist and composer. As they’re walking away, Michael runs into Julia. They decide to catch up, and this encounter results in an affair. Michael discovers, at the same time, that Julia is going deaf.
When Michael’s quartet discovers his relationship, they don’t know what to make of it. However, they’re all soon distracted when they win a contract to record Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art of Fugue
. They then have a chance to play a very important concert in Vienna. Michael’s worried about returning to Vienna because of what happened the last time, but he’s determined to face his fears.
Meanwhile, Piers invites Julia to join them in Vienna and to play music with them. Michael doesn’t tell Piers or the others about her deafness; Julia wants to go. The trip to Vienna gives them a chance to continue their affair; Michael doesn’t want to let Julia go again.
However, it’s not long before the musicians discover Julia’s deafness. They notice she’s confused by notes and not following the tune. When they learn why, they feel a bit cheated, but Michael talks them round. They all know that Julia, deaf or not, is a very talented musician; she’s as talented as any of them. They decide to give her a very strong bass sound to follow, which lets her practice with them.
This works well, and the musicians get ready for their big performance. Michael gets increasingly nervous, believing he’ll let the group down. Despite their reassurances, his nerves only get worse. Because Julia’s there, he feels able to keep going and to do the performance.
The performance goes very well, allowing Michael to feel he can let the past go. However, it’s now not so clear what’s going to happen between him and Julia. They’re still having an affair but one day, Michael notices Julia send her husband, James, a message. He can’t help but read the fax she sent him. Julia tells James she misses him, and the message is very loving.
Michael is devastated because he had started to believe it was more than just an affair. He hoped everything could go back to what it once was, particularly since they get on so well together. However, this message shows him it’ll only ever be an affair. He and Julia fall out and exchange cruel words. Julia’s wounded and very hurt by what Michael says, so she heads home to London. When Michael gets back to London, James invites him to a party. Michael’s surprised by the invitation, but he assumes he’ll get a chance to see Julia again, so he goes.
However, when he gets there, James is cold and dismissive of him. He discovers that James knows about the affair and is trying to work through things with Julia. Michael’s embarrassed that James knows. Michael also knows Julia isn’t leaving her husband for him; he feels lost and without purpose. His music suffers, and he quits the quartet. The other musicians don’t know how to help him—he needs to help himself.
At the end of An Equal Music
, Michael discovers Julia scheduled a performance of the same song they rehearsed together. He goes to hear her play at Wigmore Hall. At this point, he lets Julia and the past go; he leaves during the interval. We last see him walking away in the rain.