Music and memory: In new novel, Amherst author Karen Osborn traces the path of a female cellist

  • Karen Osborn, author of “The Music Book,” says part of her goal with her new novel was to “capture an entire life that’s held in just a few moments.” She’s seen here outside her home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Karen Osborn, author of “The Music Book,” says part of her goal with her new novel was to “capture an entire life that’s held in just a few moments.” She’s seen here outside her home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Karen Osborn, author of “The Music Book,” says part of her goal with her new novel was to “capture an entire life that’s held in just a few moments.” She’s seen here outside her home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “The Music Book” is the fifth novel by Amherst author Karen Osborn, who has won praise from The New York Times and The Washington Post for her writing. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 9:16:35 AM

You might think that, in the past, one line of work open to women was music. Even in the mid-20th century, when they struggled to break into government, law, medicine and other fields long dominated by men, women still could make their mark as musicians or in other areas of the arts such as painting, writing and acting — right?

Karen Osborn begs to differ. Her new novel, “The Music Book,” centers on a talented young female cellist from Boston, Irena Siesel, who is fresh out of a music academy and is offered a chance to play with an avant-garde New York quartet specializing in modern classical music. The group needs her for a concert in Newport, R.I., as its regular cellist has broken his arm.

It’s the early 1950s, and women have few opportunities to perform classical music, especially on larger instruments like the cello; they’re expected to teach, not perform. What happens to Irena over four days at Newport will shape much of the rest of her life — and that part of the story also gives Osborn a platform to develop a multi-level narrative that’s an exploration of the different lives people can lead, and how a good part of it can be centered in the mind and soul.

During a recent phone interview from her Amherst home, Osborn, the author of four previous novels, said she wanted to take a close look at how musicians play together, as well as offer a portrait of the early 1950s classical music environment; it was the last period when significant numbers of Americans listened to the genre, she notes, before pop music and rock and roll grabbed people’s attention.

“I like writing historical fiction, and I thought this could be an interesting era to look at, both musically and how women lived at the time, the barriers they faced in a lot of places,” she said.

And, Osborn noted, she also wanted to explore Irena’s interior life.

“I had this idea that beauty plays such an important role in our lives, and how we often hang onto those moments when we experience it,” she said. “I also wanted to look at the way we live different lives at the same time.

“We’re caught up in the day-to-day, with children, work, relationships that might not work out,” Osborn explained, “and then there are the moments that kind of define who we are, that remain so powerful to us.”

Though she’s not a musician herself, Osborn comes from an artistic family and has always listened to a variety of music. Her sister, Linda Osborn, is a concert pianist in Boston, and Karen spoke with her at length to get a feel of how performers can get absorbed in their music, as well as what’s needed for musicians to play well together.

“I know how intense it can be when you get together with other writers and you’re sharing your work,” said Osborn. “I imagine it’s much the same, maybe more so, for musicians — you’re making art together.”

Transcendent moments

“The Music Book” also goes back and forth in time. Interspersed in the narrative are shorter chapters set years later in an Alzheimer’s unit in a nursing home, in which Irena recalls images from her Newport experience and the years afterward — and even as her mind grows less clear, she remembers the joy she felt performing as part of The Modern Strings and the sense then that “a door had opened,” with music being “a pinnacle, it could not be contained.”

“The Music Book” captures those transcendent moments as Irena plays, with passages that sparkle with impressionistic images: “Colors materialized out of the notes — tangible and real, having nothing to do with the colors of the audience or setting sun. She saw purples and blues, crimsons, tawny browns…. She felt her body vibrating with the cello…. Her chest could barely stand the pressure. Any minute, her heart would explode.”

Irena is just 21 when she goes to Newport and meets the other members of the quartet — all men — including Charles Breedlove, the group’s amiable violinist. She likes Charles but is also drawn to the group’s pianist and composer, Arthur Cohen, a real talent who’s also somewhat self-absorbed and difficult to read. Yet Irena is attracted to the passion he feels for music and composition, and he is drawn to her.

Irena has a chance, if things go well at the concert, to move to New York afterwards and become a permanent part of the quartet. But the plot becomes complicated when, in an impulsive move, she sleeps with Arthur (and loses her virginity).

The two later practice a difficult cello and piano section of his new composition, and the demanding Arthur pushes her to reach for a playing ability she didn’t think she had; then he congratulates her on her work. But she’s left wondering where she stands with him personally.

Osborn writes in a straightforward manner but also with what Kirkus Reviews calls “incredible polish and subtlety,” sketching well-drawn portraits of Charles, Arthur and Patrick, the violist for The Modern Strings, who seems less impressed with Irena’s playing or the idea of her becoming part of the ensemble. She captures the uncertainty Irena feels about all that is happening during her time at Newport as well as the intensity of the moment.

Osborn, who has taught writing in a number of different colleges, also drew on some conversations with her late mother about the more limited choices women faced in the 1950s, from employment to social freedom, using that to shape much of what happens to Irena after Newport.

“I couldn’t fathom a lot of it, the restrictions women faced,” she said.

As the elderly Irena sits in the nursing home, it’s revealed that Arthur has remembered her in his will, leaving an unplayed sonata for her. Irena’s daughter, Judith, and Cohen’s niece are arranging a performance of it with the hope it will spark Irena’s memory. But what might she remember?

Osborn says it might be the music that has been a guidepost for Irena’s whole life. “I wanted to explore the idea of capturing an entire life that’s held in just a few moments,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on Karen Osborn, and to watch some virtual interviews and talks about her new book, visit karenosborn.net.


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