Accompanied by strings

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

YAEL GOLDSTEIN'S intelligent, elegantly written first novel explores the conflicts of a gifted woman whose accomplishments don't meet the exalted standards she's set for herself. Goldstein lets classical violinist Natasha Darsky narrate her own story -- a smart strategy, since readers might otherwise be baffled by the bad decisions Natasha makes and irritated by her disdain at her success as a virtuoso performer. Instead, as Natasha looks back over her life, we have the satisfaction of understanding her choices from her point of view while at the same time seeing more clearly than she can the psychological forces that have shaped her.

The opening scene deftly establishes the central mystery that compels us to follow Natasha through four decades of memories. She's giving an interview in her lavish Manhattan penthouse to a brash young reporter. Natasha's 17-year-old daughter, Alex, who has abruptly returned from her conservatory studies at Indiana University, interrupts the interview with a sardonic remark that reveals unexamined tensions seething between mother and daughter. Things only get worse when the reporter says, "I wanted to ask about Jean Paul Boumedienne." He explains that Natasha's college mentor, composer Robert Masterson, "told me that Boumedienne was how it all began." Thrown by this allusion to her long-buried past, Natasha glances at Alex. "It's when I see her narrowed eyes gone hot and white and ghastly," she tells us, "that I know." Know what? The reader hardly has a chance to wonder before Alex is out the door and her mother is consumed with anxiety and regret.

We learn what those regrets are as Goldstein skillfully interweaves quick glimpses of Natasha's frantic attempts to reconnect with her daughter with a measured account of the violinist's past. Natasha's father was a domineering, opinionated art dealer; her mother, a fine artist who quietly abandoned painting. Looking at a canvas of her mother's hidden away in a tiny alcove of their home, 18-year-old Natasha concludes, "I was face to face with failure, and I swore, standing there, that I would never know it." She has already discovered her talent for music, having won so many competitions that her father pulled her out of school at age 10 -- though he later, paradoxically, insisted that she attend college.

By the time she arrives at Harvard, Natasha has "constructed a metaphysics that calls out for a score by Wagner." She sees painters, composers and writers as "God's Chosen People.... Naturally, I want more than anything to be one." Merely playing other people's music doesn't fulfill this lofty ideal; Natasha aspires to create her own. She finds composing more difficult than performing, but she's talented enough to be admitted to Masterson's advanced composition seminar, and the notoriously exacting professor declares that she has great potential. They have a brief sexual relationship; it's Natasha's second liaison with an older man fooled by her voluptuous good looks into thinking she's bolder and more confident than she actually is.

In fact, we begin to recognize, Natasha destructively subscribes to the worldview expressed in Groucho Marx's famous quip that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Their three-week fling, ended by Masterson, makes it difficult for her to believe that he genuinely considers her a promising composer. That distinction belongs, she is sure, to Jean Paul Boumedienne, a young French-born graduate student whose dense, polyphonic music is the subject of excited campus chatter. Natasha is jealous, yet she can't help being attracted to gentle Jean Paul and thrilled by his passionate desire to create a new kind of music. It's her dream too, and their love affair grows out of their musical conversations.

Jean Paul is everything a lover should be: ardent, affectionate, awed by Natasha's artistry on the violin and respectful of her fledgling efforts as a composer. Yet we aren't surprised when a single comment she reads in a letter to his mother provokes a crisis that eventually leads to Natasha's leaving him. What does he actually write? "Sometimes I think she is able to understand what I write better than I understand it ... sometimes this even makes me sad for her." What does Natasha immediately infer? "He thought my talent was only for understanding ... he felt bad because I couldn't produce any worthwhile works of my own." This is a big leap, but the richly textured history Goldstein has created for her protagonist makes it completely credible.

Readers will frequently want to take this misguided woman by the shoulders and cry, "What are you doing?" But we never lose sympathy for Natasha, because we see how vulnerable and insecure she is. As she retreats from Jean Paul and composing, throwing herself once more into playing the violin, we also see that she was born to be a performer. She's a superb interpreter, finding the emotional essence of works that no one else has discerned -- and she knows it. Her marvelous descriptions of performing, filled with metaphors of battle and struggle, make it clear how invested she is: "These notes are mine as well, I'd insist from inside the score; I own them too, and I am creating." Why can't it ever be enough?

Actually, it is enough in the book's lovely and moving final pages. But Natasha has a long road to travel before she gets there, and the stops she makes along the way include an ill-advised tryst with yet another older man that results in Alex's birth, as well as the painful discovery in Alex's teenage years of what it must have been like for Jean Paul to live with a resentful companion who loves you but finds you overwhelming. Alex goes to Indiana to make her own life and becomes an acolyte of Jean Paul, now an embittered, slightly crazy cult figure. "I don't think there's anyplace I can go where your long arm hasn't already reached," she rages when she discovers that her mother was the love of her musical idol's life. "You're not human; you're, you're omnipresent."

The slow unfolding of Natasha's story acknowledges damage that cannot be undone. She failed to nourish her abilities as a composer, and they withered. Her betrayal derailed Jean Paul's career -- though not his music -- for years. A tender reconciliation scene suggests they may yet have a future, but they are not the same people who loved each other a quarter of a century ago. In her most important relationship, however, Natasha finally gets it right. Alex is the brilliant composer her mother never had the conviction to be, and when Natasha tells her "all I ever wanted was to have the talent you have," she liberates her daughter from the intimidating shadow she didn't even know she had cast.

It might seem odd for Goldstein to dedicate a tale of mother-daughter strife to her own mother, critically esteemed novelist Rebecca Goldstein, but it turns out to be entirely appropriate. Both Goldsteins write fiction deeply involved with intellect and ideas, warmed by sensitively delineated emotions and propelled by strong storytelling. "Overture" establishes Yael Goldstein as a writer with a distinctive voice of her own, while paying graceful tribute to the family literary tradition. *

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