- Title: Sight Reading
- Author: Daphne Kalotay
- Genre: Mainstream
- Format: Paperback
- Source: Own
- Reviewed by: Olga
- Rating: 4 out of 5
Description: On a Boston street one warm spring day after a long New England winter, Hazel and Remy spot each other for the first time in years. Under ordinary circumstances, this meeting might seem insignificant. But Remy, a gifted violinist, is married to the composer Nicholas Elko-once the love of Hazel’s life.
It has been twenty years since Remy, a conservatory student whose ambition may outstrip her talent; Nicholas, a wunderkind suddenly struggling with a masterwork he cannot fully realize; and his wife, beautiful and fragile Hazel, first came together and tipped their collective world on its axis. Over the decades, each has buried disappointments and betrayals that now threaten to undermine their happiness. But as their entwined stories unfold from 1987 to 2007, from Europe to America, from conservatory life to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, each will discover the surprising ways in which the quest to create something real and true–be it a work of art or one’s own life–can lead to the most personal of revelations, including the unearthing of secrets we keep, even from ourselves.
Review: I received the galley from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is a part of the TLC book tour.
Despite being a bit slow and somewhat ponderous, this novel was among the most powerful I’ve read recently. Its prose is eloquent and luminous; its descriptions lyrical, emphasized by the symbolism on both visual and musical planes. The only flaw I can pinpoint is too much musical vernacular, which is basically incomprehensible to anyone but a musician, although I must admit: there is a glossary at the back. Anyway, it is a minor flaw, pardonable in a book about classical music. I would’ve given it 5 stars for the quality of writing and the deep emotional involvement, if I didn’t dislike one of the protagonists so much. As it is, I had no choice but to drop a star from the rating.
The gist of the plot is fairly banal. At the start of the novel Nicholas, a supremely talented composer, is married to Hazel. They move to Boston, so he can work at the Boston Conservatory, and he falls in love with an ambitious young violinist Remy, one of his students. He divorces Hazel and marries Remy. Then the author follows the three main characters through the next 20 years of their lives.
Fortunately, the plot is not the focus of this tale. The author concentrates on the characters – Hazel, Nicholas, and Remy – and makes us, the readers, privy to their innermost thoughts, shames, and revelations. We witness their interplays, fret about their mistakes, celebrate their triumphs.
Among the three, Hazel is my heroine. Loyal and kind, with the unerring sense of beauty, she is extremely fragile. It takes her ten years to come to terms with her husband’s betrayal. Drowning in her loneliness, she feels misplaced among couples, ashamed of her “singledom”.
“It was that her aloneness felt like an element of her personality—as if her singledom were a character trait and not simply a situation beyond her control.”
She constantly doubts herself, and my heart ached for her. As I read, I wanted to ease her distress, to cheer her up. I understood her misery and her occasional spite towards Remy. I was glad, when Hazel found contentment towards the end of the novel, although her second marriage felt more a compromise than a love match. How realistic and unfair that Hazel, the most delicate of the three, has been given the least number of pages by the author.
Unlike Hazel, Nicholas is happy with himself most of the time. Generous and charming, he is loved and admired by everyone: your typical absent-minded genius. Imbued with more musical talent than a man can handle, he is often confused in his human interactions. He is absorbed in his music but forgets birthdays and anniversaries. He doesn’t even notice, when his wife cheats on him. His deficiency in the social sphere counterbalances his huge talent, makes him human. He might’ve achieved even more as a musician, if he had a better wife, a woman dedicated to him, instead of a narcissistic, high-maintenance bitch like Remy.
And that brings me to Remy, my least favorite character and perhaps the most complex. She is the one who grabs the highest number of pages for herself. The lynchpin of the story, she is also the source of everyone’s suffering. The novel revolves around her, and she doesn’t deserve it.
While Nicholas’s self-centeredness stems from his overflowing talent, Remy’s egotism comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Her refrain is ‘Not enough!’ It’s not enough for her to be an orchestra member, even in the most prestigious orchestra. She wants to be a star, even though she doesn’t have that elusive divine spark intrinsic to the stars. Frustrated by her inability to achieve stardom, she wants Nicholas as her consolation prize. It is not enough for her to be his friend and student. She wants to be his new wife. His existing wife and daughter are just a minor inconvenience for her.
Although Remy is not intentionally cruel, and the author probably didn’t want to portray her as a predator, Remy is a piece of art, and like any piece of art, she is open to interpretations.
In my interpretation, I see her as a brazen barracuda who gobbles up everyone in her path, men and women alike, but even that is not enough for her. Her occasional pangs of guilt, the author’s attempt to make Remy more sympathetic, feel unconvincing. Remy has no trouble in shrugging them off and ruthlessly reaching for whatever she craves next. Compassion and empathy are not her forte. Vanity and self-pity are.
I understand Remy’s perpetual dissatisfaction, I do. She is a gifted artist, and like any artist, she yearns for recognition and self-expression. She perceives her own mediocrity, and it chafes at her. Granted, it’s harder to be a mediocre artist than a mediocre plumber, but in my view, an insufficient gift doesn’t excuse immorality. And Remy’s morals are basically flexible, biased towards herself.
As I read the book, I came to really deplore her, but I suppose my disgust is the highest compliment to the writer. After all, I saw Remy as a living woman. She stirred my hostility. She made me worry about Nicholas, as if he were alive too, and not a creature of words and paragraphs. I turned the pages and wondered: why men always fall for such sluts? I resisted Remy’s allure and her vulnerability. I cursed her petty vindictiveness. She commanded an entire range of my emotions. No reader can ask for more.