A musical passion

Sunday, March 04
Overture: A Novel
By Yael Goldstein
Doubleday, 304 pages, $24.95

When I finished Yael Goldstein's debut novel, "Overture," I wondered why I'd never learned to play the violin. Or at least the piano. Never attempting to play an instrument seems now such an embarrassing flaw, a handicap of sorts.

Maybe the reason my lack of musical ability seems such a disadvantage is because of the skill of Goldstein's protagonist, Natasha Darsky.

Natasha, the "femme fatale of violin," tours the world, driving concert-goers wild with her sexually charged sound. But no matter how large the crowd, when her bow touches the strings, everyone disappears — and she wages a battle against the music, fighting to make her own the notes she can't create.

At one time, though, composing was her passion, and the life of a virtuoso seems paltry in comparison. She spends her years at Harvard composing promising music, appreciated by even the most hard-nosed professors.

But when Natasha meets Jean Paul Boumedienne, a brilliant classmate bent on creating a new kind of music, her aspirations take a backseat to his. Their admiration for each other borders on obsession, but Natasha suspects her talent is secondary to Jean Paul's.

One sentence written in a letter to Jean Paul's mother destroys not only their love, but Natasha's ability to compose:

"Sometimes I think she is able to understand what I write better than I understand it ... sometimes this even makes me sad for her."

It might seem cryptic in other circumstances, but in Natasha and Jean Paul's situation, it is perfectly clear. It is sad. Sad that Natasha can understand Jean Paul's music so well, understand all music so well, and has only talent to perform.

Although Goldstein's story wasn't totally original — girl loves, girl leaves, girl travels world to pursue her art — it was too beautifully written to matter. I know so very little about music, and until "Overture," I never would have believed an author could successfully use words to convey something that can only be heard. But Goldstein does it. It wasn't that Goldstein's writing made me hear that sensual, angry violin. It was that she made me ache to.

"Every performance had been an exhilarating struggle of eros and identity in which I'd fought for my own voice from out of the notes, now I'd lost the will to fight. Feeling failure swirling thickly around me, I didn't want to claw my way out of the music anymore. I wanted to crawl inside it and never come out," Natasha grieves.

My only problem with "Overture" was Goldstein's tendency to repeat herself toward the end. It was as though she'd spent herself on the first three-fourths of the book.

What I loved best — Goldstein's descriptions of sound, her recreations of emotion — became oft-placed in the last chapters of the book, so much so that I almost, but not quite, tired of them. It made me aware of how suddenly the plot had slowed down, as if story had aged along with Natasha.

Don't get me wrong. Never once did I dislike the book — quite the opposite. It was more like a long love affair. At first, I was completely infatuated. I couldn't get enough. Then I settled in and got comfortable, almost took the beauty for granted. But after a while, the things I used to love about it started to grate on me. And when it was finished, I was sad — but it had ended at just the right time.


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