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Literature / An Equal Music

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A 1999 novel by Vikram Seth, An Equal Music follows the story of an English violinist, Michael, who is a member of a string quartet. Ten years ago as a student in Vienna, he and a pianist called Julia fell in love, but adverse circumstances and a misunderstanding separated them.

Now he meets her again, although she is married with a son, and is also suffering hearing loss. This meeting sparks a journey which proves tumultuous, both regarding their musical careers and their love for each other.


Together with violinist Philippe Honoré, Seth produced a CD of all the music mentioned or featured in the novel, including Franz Schubert's Trout Quintet and Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending.

The novel includes examples of the following tropes:

  • Food Slap: An enraged Piers doles out the "drink thrown in face" (over head, to be precise) variant in response to an acquaintance/overly opinionated professional music critic who made very obnoxious comments about music. Even better, after receiving a snippy "Fuck you!", the critic in question continues to troll Piers till he snaps and makes with the punch.
  • Internal Reveal: Quite a dramatic and tragic one, involving a letter from Julia to her husband. Michael doesn't take it well.
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  • Love at First Sight: Julia and Michael's relationship is described as such.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Michael, would it really have hurt to keep Julia's secret, to leave that letter alone, or to keep to yourself that you read it? Although from a certain point of view, perhaps it was all for the best...
  • Nostalgic Narrator: Michael becomes this for the flashbacks.
  • The One That Got Away: Julia is this for the protagonist. Twice.
  • Precision F-Strike: In French, no less; at one point, Michael's violin student and sometimes lover Virginie gets fed up with him during a phone conversation and hangs up with a snap of "Va te faire foutre!" (Literally "Go fuck yourself", but used idiomatically to mean "Fuck you".) Another occurs near the end when Michael tells the woman who has repeatedly mistaken his number for that of the London Bait Company that she "can do whatever [she] fucking well like[s]".
  • Reclusive Artist: Julia becomes one.
  • Second Love: James for Julia.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Michael gradually degenerates into this.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Julia qualifies.
  • Take That!: Violist Helen, the only woman in the string quartet, remarks that "In the Quartetto Italiano, the woman was serially married to all three of the men."
  • Teacher/Student Romance: As Michael and his French violin pupil Virginie.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Michael and Julia come close to giving them to each other toward the end.
  • True Companions: The novel is largely about the bond between four musicians performing as a string quartet.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Mrs Formby's final letter.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: Sort of. Both Michael and Julia continue to love each other throughout, but the young Michael was blinded by anger, and and at the end of the story Julia decides that she must stay with James (whom she loves).

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