An Unfinished Scoreby Elise Blackwell
As she prepares dinner for her husband and their extended family, Suzanne hears on the radio that a jetliner has crashed and her lover is dead.
Alex Elling was a renowned orchestra conductor.
Suzanne is a concert violist, long unsatisfied with her marriage to a composer whose music turns emotion into thought. Now, more alone than she’s ever been, she
As she prepares dinner for her husband and their extended family, Suzanne hears on the radio that a jetliner has crashed and her lover is dead.
Alex Elling was a renowned orchestra conductor.
Suzanne is a concert violist, long unsatisfied with her marriage to a composer whose music turns emotion into thought. Now, more alone than she’s ever been, she must grieve secretly. But as complex as that effort is, it pales with the arrival of Alex’s widow, who blackmails her into completing the score for Alex’s unfinished viola concerto.
As Suzanne struggles to keep her double life a secret from her husband, from her best friend,
and from the other members of her quartet, she is consumed by memories of a rich love affair saturated with music. Increasingly manipulated by her lover’s widow and tormented by the concerto’s many layers, Suzanne realizes she may lose everything she’s spent her life working for.
A story of love, loss, sex, class, and betrayal,
this psychologically compelling novel explores the ways that artists’ lives and work interact, the nature of relationships among women as friends and competitors, and what it means to make a life of art.
- Unbridled Books
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- 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
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An Unfinished Score
By Elise Blackwell
Unbridled BooksCopyright © 2009 Elise Blackwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe hears the words on the radio. It is the radio that announces her lover's death. His is not a household name, not in most households, but he happens to be the most famous person on the plane that went down. The plane's wreckage, strewn across Indiana farmland, is being examined for clues. Crews search for the voice recorder, the black box that holds the secret of two hundred seventy-one deaths. Two hundred seventy, plus one.
Suzanne's rib cage shudders-a piano whose keys are struck all at once-yet she does not cry. She does not cry, but only closes her eyes and presses her palms flat on the cool counter. None of the facts of Alex's life suggests that it ends in a soybean field.
At the dining room table, playing a board game and separated from her by the counter on which she works, sit the other members of her household, a household in which Alex's name at least rings a bell. Her husband's dice clack against the wood; her best friend sighs as her game piece is sent back to start; Adele's hands clap three times.
"Starting over isn't all bad," Ben says, and Petra does not respond.
Suzanne lifts onto her toes to search the high cabinet for the olive oil, her hand grabbing only the air the bottle usually occupies. She spies it on the counter, where she obviously set it earlier.It has been right in front of her all along. She minces the cloves of garlic that she peeled before she knew her lover was dead, heats oil in a wide skillet, salts a pot of roiling water. The simple sounds of knife on wood, of water rising to slow boil, of onion sizzling become the distinct tones of grief.
If she lives, this will be how: moment to moment, task by task, left foot then right, breathing in then out. An eternal present in which every sound is loud. This is something she should be good at, if anyone can be. For four years she has practiced pretending that every thing is fine, that she is what she seems to be.
Ben, who has been listening to the broadcast, who has heard the honey-voiced announcement, says from the table, "That's sad. Don't we have a couple of his recordings?"
"I think so. Chicago Symphony playing Brahms's Double Concerto and some other stuff." Suzanne presses her voice flat, passing for normal. "I played under him in St. Louis that time, right before I moved to the quartet."
"Why is death always sad?" Petra says. "I mean, wasn't he a total asshole, even for a conductor?"
"I kind of liked him." Suzanne shakes water loose from the greens, tries to dry her hands on the oily dishcloth. Moment by moment, left foot, right foot, breathe. "Can you clear the table after the next round of turns? Dinner's almost ready." She breathes in and out again, short on oxygen, lungs shallow and on the edge of panic. "Such as it is." A sputtered almost joke.
While Petra and Adele pack away the game, Ben sets out white plates. His form contradicts the domestic setting: his strong forearms bared by rolled-up sleeves, flexing as he folds the cheap paper napkins on the diagonal.
Adele signs something, and Petra interprets for Ben: "She says she's never seen you do that before-fold the napkins. Usually you just toss them out. She says they look like sails."
Ben spells party letter by letter, but he knows the sign for hats. Adele claps and makes one of her unconscious noises, a chirp of delight.
Suzanne watches them, grateful that they are safe on the ground yet also afraid of their emotional compasses, each tricky in its different way, each seeming to point at her all the time as though she is true north.
Ben's absorption with fact and music rarely extends to interest in the breathing world, and never outside their small, odd family. It is a distance that feels studied, as though he made a decision in some formative year not to be touched by other people. He shields his emotional barometer so well that even Suzanne and Petra often take it for an absence, for some hole in the fabric of his nature, and their surprise borders on fright when he names some human truth, extracting the insight from his emotional hollow like a magician pulls a ribbon from the thin air.
Petra's moods slide across her face all day-intense, shifting, and mostly short-lived. They rule her though she cannot name them, yet she easily measures the feelings of others, taking the pulse of one person or an entire room, if only so she'll know whom she can make angry and when to run the other way.
Yet it is Adele Suzanne most fears. Adele's emotional compass is keen because she is still a child-no one spots a liar faster than a smart child-and unrelenting because she must watch people closely or she will lose the world.
Suzanne turns to drain the pasta, hot streaks of steam pelting the side of her neck and face.
Ben does not set out wineglasses, so Suzanne does not uncork the bottle she picked up earlier, reading labels against price tags, the sun filtering through the store's filmy window warm on the back of her neck, the clerk watching her with slight interest. She does not open the wine she chose before she knew her lover was dead. Before he was dead, or at the moment he died? The radio has not said what time the plane dropped from the sky.
"Like a stone in water." The witness voices an accent so Midwestern that it sounds Southern. Suzanne turns the dial, clicks off the cheap radio. Without the word survivor, and there isn't one, the details can do her no good tonight.
Suzanne distributes water glasses, and they take their usual seats around the food. Adele lifts her glass, leaving behind a wet circle she traces with a fingertip. She looks at the food, at each of them. Had they been a household of three, which for a while it seemed they might be, family dinners would have been shaped by sound. Rising or falling or stalled, but always sound or its absence. But Ben and Suzanne's baby did not arrive, and after Petra and Adele made them a quartet, they worked to make a world defined by sight, touch, smell, taste rather than by sound and not-sound.
In their deep concern for Adele-the child who never turned to Petra's violin, who never winced at sudden noise, the child with wide eyes but only a small seal of a mouth-the three musicians do the best they can. Suzanne has trained her eyes and hands to move with some fluency. Now that Adele can follow the shapes and motions of lips, Suzanne speaks slowly and faces her squarely. Of course none of their hands are so nimble in language as Adele's. The swift precision of hers is that of a conductor who knows the music so well that he does not use a score.
Suzanne watches Adele's fingers through dinner, sometimes forgetting to answer, forgetting to mouth or sign, "Yes, I had a good day, too." She is thinking of Alex's hands at work, and that today feels like the worst day of her life.
Petra carries the conversation with Adele, chatting away like an older sister, asking Suzanne if Adele can have soda with dinner, as though it is Suzanne and not Petra who is the mother. Susanne does what Petra wants her to do: she says no for her.
Away from her violin Petra's long fingers lack the speed and clean sweeps of her daughter's, but they share their exuberance, the beguiling lack of self-consciousness. They move without her watching them, like Suzanne's fingers when they press and release the strings of her viola but at no other time. Suzanne envies this fundamental honesty, this fluency in a speech not yet divorced from action and feeling by time and intent. For all her faults, Petra doesn't lie. She says she doesn't have to, an advantage of not giving a flying fuck what other people think. Suzanne wonders what it is to lie in gesture, whether it is easier to detect deception in a first or second language, in spoken or signed speech. Hands caught in the act. She folds hers in her lap, resting from eating the food she cannot quite taste.
She remembers to ask Ben about his work. He is collaborating on a composition with a man who is both a mathematics professor and on the adjunct music faculty, and they are arranging it for a small orchestra.
Ben nods, stabbing tubes of pasta. "We decided to cut the faux-scherzo."
"Too obscure? The joke that isn't?"
His hair, recently grown out from a self-inflicted haircut, flops side to side as he eats. He looks at Suzanne as though there is food on her face, more amused than annoyed but at least a little annoyed. "I argued that it pandered, and Kazuo agreed. The whole point of this staging, of using his contacts to get this performed for an audience, is to create an uncompromised piece."
"No such thing!" says Petra.
Ben ignores her. "I want the listener to have a distilled experience, something pure."
The listener. Suzanne pictures Richardson Auditorium one-third full: small clumps of math professors, music students, the odd mother taking a too-young child for a little culture after church, widows and widowers with the small hope of meeting one another and nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. Empty seats divide them.
She swipes her mouth with her napkin. "To experience the beauty of music intellectually, stripped of emotion," she says, a refrain from one of Ben's oft-spoken theorems.
Widows with nothing better to do. The thought recurs, means something new in its second iteration. Alex's wife-now a widow. Her carotid arteries tense, as though there is too much blood in her body, and her pulse is all she can feel.
Adele's eyes are fixed on Suzanne's mouth, trying to read her words. Petra's stare is about something else. In these faces she loves, Suzanne sees only danger. Her head feels heavy, engorged with grief beginning to swell.
Ben again shakes his head, hard, caring so obviously that his body discloses his passion. It is how they used to feel about the music-and each other-all the time, even back when they were students, when they were only posing as musicians and adults, rehearsing the people they wanted to be.
Now sarcasm sharpens his laugh. "Not stripped of emotion. Without emotional interference. No directions in the first place-no agitato, no appassionato, no doloroso-just the sublime."
"Isn't the sublime emotional?" Petra asks.
Suzanne closes her eyes and sees Alex. She opens them because if she thinks about Alex she will break like a glass shattered by perfect high pitch. She concentrates on what is being said at the table, tries to close the distance fast opening between her and where she sits. Even her plate seems far away, Petra's voice oddly distant. When Ben launches into his long answer, his voice comes to Suzanne as if through a tunnel.
She knows his premiere will have three reviews. The local paper will send a cheerleader who knows nothing about music and will write up something sweet with the assistance of a music dictionary, a thesaurus, and the photocopied program. A more expensively educated and stealthy presence from the Times or the Inquirer will yield a scathing piece that neglects the composition itself in a jeremiad against the off-to-sea, out-to-lunch academy and its impenetrable, navel-gazing, masturbatory self-indulgences. The reviewer will use some of these very words.
The third review will be written by one of those several professors who knock between music and mathematics departments-a friend or admirer or enemy or former lover or teacher or student of Kazuo. It will appear, months later, in a journal carried by Princeton's Fireside Library but not by the libraries of universities with less funding and smaller collections. The review will be positive or negative or-most likely-mixed, but it will be dense and detailed, and Ben will pronounce that at least the reviewer understood what he and Kazuo were seeking, that the reviewer got it.
"You can call it Subliminal," Suzanne says.
Though he rarely joked himself, Alex always smiled at her silly puns, and the thought of his smile constricts her throat even to air. When it releases, she hears herself gasp, though only Adele looks up as though she as heard the sound of Suzanne desperate for oxygen.
"You know it can't be titled," Ben says, his voice like salt, the last of his amusement evaporated.
After dinner the evening pulls long like elastic, and Suzanne is relieved to cross the stretched time, moment by quivering moment, left foot then right. She volunteers to make Adele's school lunch while Adele and Petra withdraw to their part of the house-two bedrooms linked by a bath-for their nighttime rituals. She makes the sandwich, puts dried apple slices in a plastic bag, tucks a vitamin in a paper napkin, and stows the lunch in the refrigerator. She reminds herself, as she has promised herself she would, that Adele is not her child.
"I'm going to stay up and read a bit," she says when Ben turns in early. The lines traversing his forehead hold hurt, or maybe she imagines this. "We'll spend some time this weekend." She bends her mouth in a curve that is almost a smile.
Both times that he asked, once early in the affair and once two years in, Suzanne told Alex that she made love to her husband only rarely and when unavoidable. But that was not true. Sometimes unavoidable means preventing pain in another, or loneliness in yourself. Sometimes unavoidable means doing what someone else wants because you are the kind of person who does what others want you to do. Sometimes unavoidable means only your own generalized desire, that strong human need for touch.
"This weekend." Ben leans down, kisses her hairline.
"Don't forget the deadline this Friday." When he looks puzzled, she adds, "For the teaching position."
His face closes, his jaw tightening and his eyes cooling like water becoming ice. "I thought we already decided that commuting wasn't something I would do."
"It sounds like you've already decided, anyway."
While new to their marriage, they would argue late into the night. They did this less out of respect for the old adage against going to bed angry than out of their eagerness to engage with ideas and with each other. Now Suzanne knows the value of truncating a quarrel, if only in sleep gained, and her words are the last of their day. Tonight they do not even make eye contact again. As on many nights, they do not say good-night.
After the bathroom tap stops running and the bedroom light dims, Suzanne takes down the whiskey bottle from the high cabinet over the refrigerator. It's the only sure bottle in the house, not because Petra has never looked up there but because she will not drink bourbon, not even when the house is otherwise dry. Suzanne pours the whiskey heavily into a tumbler of ice cubes. Only after twenty minutes, after the last cough or toss can be heard from the bedroom or from Petra's part of the house, does she pull out Alex Elling's last CD.
Most recent and final. His latest and his last.
She sits with these two inanimate companions-cheap plastic case and highball glass-in the big blue armchair that has traveled with her and Ben from Philadelphia to Charleston, from Charleston to St. Louis, from St. Louis to Princeton. How hard they laughed when they stood in line at the DMV, coming to terms with the fact that they would have New Jersey drivers' licenses. "How did this happen to us?" they asked, pretending that they were still happy, that every thing they had was good enough, Suzanne pretending that she wasn't in love with someone else. "What's next?" she said. "North Dakota? Alabama?"
A two-dimensional Alex looks out from the CD case, baton in his capable hand. As always, he looks as though he might have walked straight out of the Black Forest: dark hair going to curls only at the ends, unlikely green eyes, skin stained tan midwinter. Though he often wore a close beard, in this photo he is clean-shaven, the way Suzanne liked him best. His neck is slender, his jawline clean, and his nose so straight and strong that Suzanne can imagine him as someone who lived a long time ago. But not as someone who died a few hours ago. He stands still, prepared to conduct but not yet in motion.
She extracts the booklet inside the case, the one Alex signed, Everything for you. Ben, though a reader of liner notes, has never mentioned the inscription. Suzanne has turned this fact over, wondering whether Ben knew and decided to allow her the affair as the price of keeping her or merely from indifference-or whether the idea never occurred to him and he assumed this was how the great conductor signed albums for all his fans. Ben has never asked her what it was like to play under Alex, never asked whether they spoke of more than the music at hand, never asked, even, if he was a good conductor. Though this is just one of the many closed doors between them, she has always resented him for not noticing, or pretending not to, and hated herself for not knowing which and not being strong enough to ask.
Excerpted from An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell Copyright © 2009 by Elise Blackwell. Excerpted by permission.
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When Suzanne Sullivan learns of her lover Alex's death over the radio, it takes every ounce of willpower to continue making dinner for her family without letting on that something is out of the ordinary. Within a couple of weeks, she is contacted by Alex's wife Olivia, who demands she finish the musical composition her late husband was writing when he was having his affair with her. This proves to be a difficult task, one Suzanne has to complete while simultaneously tending to both her unhappy marriage and her best friend's sensitive needs. And what she discovers along the way may pose more questions than answer them. AN UNFINISHED SCORE is rich with musical history and theories (including how you can read a person through the music they write). Blackwell writes with flowing, poetic prose that will grab you and drop you smack in the middle of Suzanne's sad emotions. The story is one of heavy burden- the reader will have their own strong opinion of what is right and wrong and yet will still find themselves rooting for Suzanne throughout her decisions.The last 60 pages in particular kept me up into the wee hours of the morning!
A paradox of sorts, An Unfinished Score tells the story of Suzanne Sullivan, a musician, a wife, and an adulteress. While preparing dinner for her husband and their extended family, Suzanne hears on the radio that her lover, Alex Elling, has died in the crash of a jetliner. Suzanne must mourn in secret while continuing her life as a concert violist and a wife. She continues to silently grieve through rehearsals, performances, and everyday life as the wife of a composer who distances himself from emotion, mother to her best friend, Petra's daughter Adele, and counselor to Petra herself. After a series of mysterious phone calls Suzanne meets Olivia, Alex's widow. Olivia compels Suzanne to finish a Viola Concerto that Alex was composing before his death. Struggling to complete the score of the concerto Suzanne relives memories of her separate life with Alex and the emotions that the concerto invokes. Suzanne is the other woman, someone who we despise in theory, but cannot help but empathize with throughout this story. She is flawed and realistic. Olivia is the scorned wife, a woman whose pain we understand but whose actions create a conflict that seems cruel. Suzanne, Olivia, Ben, Petra, and Adele are subject to the errors of humanity. An Unfinished Score is perfectly orchestrated to bring about empathy and understanding in unexpected places. It is the story of life: love, loss, betrayal, and redemption. An Unfinished Score provides a plethora of discussion points and is meant to be shared. This is a great book for group discussion. I highly recommend An Unfinished Score.
An Unfinished Score delves you deep into the psyche of Suzanne; wife, friend, musician, and adultress. Suzanne has to mourn in secret the death of her lover and the death of the escape from her boring marriage. Suzanne has lied to everyone, including sometimes herself in this elegantly written, very believable story. Written with an angst that the reader will be at once drawn to and repelled by, with an ending that will quite possibly leave you with more questions than answers. This would be an excellent read for a book club and definitely some lively discussion!
As she prepares dinner for her husband Ben, their deaf daughter Adele and best friend Petra, concert violist Suzanne Sullivan hears of her lover's death over the radio. She conceals her grief over the death of her beloved orchestra conductor Alex Elling. She avoids a meltdown due to their shared love of music, which gets her through the meal, his funeral and the next few weeks. A couple weeks after Alex is buried, his widow Olivia begins calling Suzanne leaving messages hinting at exposing her. Olivia demands Suzanne complete her late spouse's final score or else face ridicule and worse when she is revealed to her family and the orchestra as a cheating spouse. Unable to mourn in public, Suzanne detests the extortion but also wants closure by honoring her beloved so she decides to complete An Unfinished Score that Alex was composing in honor of his cherished lover. Although overwrought with too much angst, An Unfinished Score is an enjoyable character driven tale. The two female rivals (over who "owns" Alex's memory) dominate the stage in spite of seemingly the entire Chicago and St. Luis orchestras and her quartet performing. The audience will enjoy this fine tale of grieving in silence. Harriet Klausner