The Ensemble – a tender portrait of practised loyalty


“They are always tied together – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.”

The Van Ness Quartet depend on each other. They are connected by their art and their ambition, but also by loneliness, loyalty, and eventually love. Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble follows the group over eighteen years, from their tumultuous youthful beginnings in San Francisco and on through their rise to success in the chamber music circuit. While Gabel’s descriptions of the classical music scene are enlightening, The Ensemble’s greatest strength is in the minutiae of the quartet’s complex and tangled relationships. In the case of the privileged Henry and spiky, resilient Jana, their friendship is a port in a storm; they instinctively turn toward each other before they reach out to anyone else, and platonically take refuge in each other’s beds when the outside world is too harsh. Over time they become like siblings, and Gabel’s rendering of such an intimate, non-romantic connection is touching and tender.

Meanwhile, the relationship between gentle Brit and jaded lothario Daniel is rife with hurt feelings and disappointments, even as they cannot extract themselves from each other’s orbit.  In fact, as in real life, there isn’t a single relationship in The Ensemble that seems straightforward. The friendship between Daniel and Henry is particularly fraught, with one encounter at the Esterhazy String Quartet Competition resulting in a full-on blowout. In the aftermath, Daniel’s reckoning with what he does and doesn’t know about his friends is a relatable depiction of someone so caught up in their own neuroses that they stop noticing others.

He touched Jacqueline’s arm. “I’m sorry. No, everything’s fine. Your brother’s in his room planning some kind of escape, but whatever.”
Jacqueline laughed. “He always is. He’s the kid that goes into a room and looks for all the exits. He can’t feel comfortable unless there’s a way out. You know that.”
Do I? Daniel wondered. How much did he know intuitively about his quartet members without consciously stating it?

These are the moments that strike home the hardest. The Ensemble is a study in those relationships that feel inevitable – the ones that exist between people who seem like they would find each other anywhere, in any alternate timeline or parallel universe. But it is also a story of practised loyalty, as the Van Ness Quartet choose each other above everything else over and over again.

The Ensemble is a sensitive, powerful debut, and a touching read.

The Ensemble is out now from Riverhead Books
(£12.99 p/b 9780525535072)

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