Book Review: The Music Book

by Jhenna Wieman

Karen Osborn’s The Music Book is a love story between two people and a love letter to music. The novel is set in 1953 and is the story of Irene Siesel, a female cellist leading the movement into the world of classical music. It follows her early career, her brief but passionate love affair, and the end of her life, as the story is told in flashbacks from the memory unit of a nursing home.

Any music lover will appreciate the way Osborn treats music in her novel. She cradles it softly with words and makes it the centerpiece of the story.

The words that make Irene fall in love with Arthur Cohen are about music. They have heated debates in which he argues that:

[A]ny piece of music has its own life …. Our work is to experience that life. Performance isn’t about making an audience happy or making them understand or appreciate anything. It isn’t about the audience or about the musician. It’s about the music itself.

As Irene listens to him speak, we feel her falling for him. Osborn writes, “She hated the sound of his voice, so passionate and certain, and yet she could have lived off that sound. It cut both ways, straight through her.” And Irene’s love for the cello is just as passionate and instant as her love for Arthur. The first time she hears the sound, she falls in love, “like a stone falling through water.” This passion is what drives the story forward.

As Irene and Arthur become closer through their music, their most intimate moments happen while they’re playing. As they rehearse for their upcoming performance it takes a few attempts to get the notes exactly right, but when she does:

It felt like she’d climbed inside him and knew how he was hearing the music, knew even how it had sounded to him in his mind when he’d first written the notes down. Between their instruments, something new was coming to life.

The fire they create as they play together is a life-giving force that neither of them can deny. The intensity of the music and the feelings that build when these two characters play are sensual on their own. Osborn writes of the moment after their performance as if the musicians are post-coital. She writes: “Her arms and ribs hurt, and her legs were trembling as she lowered her bow and straightened up in her chair. She was hot and sweating, and she’d arrived at the edge of something. Everything pulsed with it.” Irene spends her life chasing this high.

She understands love through music and she understands life through music. “There was purpose behind everything, and music made you know that, made it possible to feel the authority of that purpose. Life wasn’t orchestrating music. Instead, music was orchestrating life.” Music is Irene’s soul. Every other love in her life is an accessory that adorns that soul.

Jhenna Wieman got her BA in English Writing Practices from Humboldt State University and is currently an MFA candidate at University of California Riverside. She also teaches Freshman English and Language Development at Citrus Hill High School. She lives in Murrieta with her husband, her goofy Beagle Shih Tzu mix, and her indifferent cat.