The music of life: practice, performance, the closing notes

Sayuri McAllister left home as a very young adult to study cello performance in Europe and then study there.  Now she has returned home as a 29 year old to find her family home in Vancouver, Canada, much changed and in turmoil.  The most prominent upset is that the family mansion, Point Grey, has been burgled and “two million” dollars’ worth of jewellery stolen.  To her surprise Sayuri finds that the burglary is being investigated by an old high school flame, Detective Michael Donovan.  How will Sayuri adjust to her family’s changes?  Should she pick up loose threads with Michael?  What is the secret to the mystery of the burglary?


Blair McDowell has extensive experience as both a musician and a university music lecturer and this book draws upon that knowledge to create a realistic picture of a professional musician’s life, particularly the stresses of true dedication.  Sonata moves along skilfully, never boring the reader.  The book is of mixed genre: part romance/erotica, part crime/mystery/thriller.  McDowell is equally skilled at both styles and her novel is quite a success.


Sonata has a fairly standard, but quite competent, structure.  As we have noted it begins at a high point which poses a number of mysteries and open questions.  The first half of the book then proceeds, as the opening questions are elaborated.  Will, for example, Sayuri even date Michael?  Extra complications and confusions are also added as the story progresses.  At midpoint there are a number of clarifications, and then in the second half there is a swift and direct progression to the conclusion, though there are still one or two confusions to trick the reader along the way.  The book ends with a peak of crisis, followed by a final chapter in which all the plot lines and themes very neatly tied up together and resolved.


The novel has an omniscient narrator and McDowell uses this technique well.  While most of the book is written from Sayuri’s point of view we are given flashes of other character’s experiences.  This reveals facts which are counter to what Sayuri believes to be true, often resulting in humour and irony.  Humour also comes in other ways.  In Chapter 3, for example, Sayuri thinks that Alyssa, the partner of her father and a woman she certainly does not like, looks “incredibly young and innocent.  Rather like the princess in a Disney version of a fairy tale.”  Along the way there are one or two “Oh my God!” moments to knock us off our chair.  One minor criticism is that McDowell twice (Ch. 7 & Ch. 16) has Buttercup, Michael’s female dog, pee “against a tree.”  Of course that is the action of a male dog: females squat.


Sonata’s main theme is balance.  We have many demands, needs and goals in our life and amongst all of these pressures we need to find some way of devoting time to all of them.  Career takes up much of our time, but as social beings we need family and friends, as well as relaxation and entertainment.  But how is this to be done?  Is it really achievable?  Closely related to this is the theme of clear thinking.  In our careers we need to rationally weigh things up, but do we always need to be like that?  Surrender to the moment, even just acceptance of the moment, can be a great release and a great source of joy.  Clear thinking, at times can become cold rationality and needs to give way to a more holistic approach to life, including our whole selves: our emotions, our longings, our unmet needs.


McDowell’s characters are certainly adequately motivated.  Sayuri is driven by her dedication to her music and feels a deep need to be “in charge” (Ch.2) of her life.  As a child she was “lonely” (Ch. 2) and we wonder if that is still the case.  She is, for a 29 year old woman, also rather surprisingly naïve about other aspects of life.  She has, for example, never had a stable home of her own, living out of suit cases as she travels on the concert tours circuit.  This aspect of her character makes her rather interesting and unusual, and raises a ‘parent’s concern’ for her in the mature reader and an immediate connection in the younger reader.  Sayuri is certainly a likable woman and we immediately care about her and want the best for her.  Michael is likable also, particularly with his boyish “lopsided grin” (Ch. 2 & Ch. 11).  He is a guy with ordinary desires and goals that men can immediately relate to.  At high school he was a ‘jock’.  He is successful in a moderate way, having achieved his personal goals, and has his moments of real command and assurance.  In Chapter 3, decked out in his new suit, he is compared to “James Bond” and indeed there are moments when this ordinary police man shines.  Michael is motivated by simple love, but with a touch of guilt and regret.  McDowell, as you can see, has made her characters complex enough to seem real.  As, for example, Sayuri comments, Michael is “a study in contrasts” (Ch. 2).  Sayuri has an arc of development that maintains our interest through the book as we wonder exactly what each next decision will be as she comes to terms with her new circumstances.  McDonald has included some interesting comparisons and contrasts between characters, such as between Sayuri and Hugh James, Alyssa’s brother (Ch. 5).  These contrasts help us see how to achieve the right balance in life that the book is so much concerned with.


Symbolism is lightly used in the book if one cares to consider it.  Ireland is referred to repeatedly throughout the text.  All of the main characters have ‘a touch of the Irish even though distantly.  The McAllister family are Irish by name.  Hugh has spent most of his life in Ireland.  Alyssa was born in Ireland, though she has spent most of her life elsewhere.  Michael’s family came from Ireland, and he has a cousin there.  This image is ambiguous, calling to mind likable notions such as ‘blarney’, charm, as well as negative ideas such as stupidity (Irish jokes) and extended internal conflict (the sectarian war).  Throughout the book we see references to Brahms’ Cello Sonata and music in general.  This symbol is also ambiguous.  As Roger Scruton points out in his philosophical work Beauty: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press, c2011, p. 2-4) art, including music, can inspire us to our very best, indeed can have an almost divine aspect, but can also mask evil.  As a crime mystery Sonata is of course about getting to the truth of the matter, and as a romance it is about finding truth in love.  Clear answers, though, are not always available.  Are ‘bad’ people completely bad?  Can a question, especially one about relationships, always be answered by a simple yes or no?


From the perspective of Feminism McDowell presents three women, Sayuri, Alyssa and Nora Banks (the McAllister’s housekeeper and cook), all of whom are working women, all quite capable successful and determined, each in their own way.  Sayuri is not only a talented musician as well as a successful music teacher (Ch. 2), but is also physically fit.  In Chapter 6 she jogs quite happily next to Michael.  Sayuri is described as having an “almost boyish form” (Ch. 2).  This calls to mind the writings of the Postmodernist Feminist Judith Butler in her “questioning of notions of ‘femaleness’ which are taken for granted in society” (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 163).  Quite early in the book (Ch. 3) the subject of the career/relationship dichotomy is discussed.  Betty Friedan, in her book Feminine Mystique (Reprint ed.:  W.W. Norton, 2001) argued that:


… if women learned how to juggle their various domestic duties, they would find the time and energy to engage in professional careers.  This would ensure them private and public satisfaction.”  (Jenainati, p. 92)


As many of Friedan’s contemporary feminists asked, though, can this idea practically and reasonably be achieved?  Is every woman a ‘superwoman’?  What will the actual details of this dual life be?  Some may be annoyed to find that Sayuri seems to have “female intuition” (Ch. 3), but later in the book Michael too has his own premonitions.  Male domination also appears in the book.  It is certainly mainly depicted as very undesirable.  Interestingly, though, Michael is quite praised for being old fashioned enough to open a car door for Sayuri (Ch. 2).


From the broader point of view of gender studies men are depicted as both strong and caring/emotional beings.  We do not have here the ‘stern, hard, tough guy’ so much favoured by traditional society.  Rather we see the strong, but feeling, New Age man of Robert Bly (Iron John: men and masculinity: Rider, 2001, Ch. 8) and the Men’s Movement.  Michael is a competent police detective, but very sensitive to Sayurei’s needs.  He also is an accomplished cook (Ch. 2), something that three decades ago boys certainly did not learn in school.  Sean, Sayuri’s father, is a very committed businessman, but also caring.  Emotions are not at all depicted as weakness in men as traditional society would have it.

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Readers interested in the LGBTIQ perspective will be disappointed to find that it is completely absent in the book.  To be fair, though, there are only five main characters in the novel, plus 4 very minor characters (2 couples).  Perhaps a party guest, or one of Sayuri’s music colleagues, could have represented this minority in passing?


The post-colonial contingent is represented by Sayuri’s Japanese grandparents, “Sofu and Sobo Akatsuko” (Ch. 3 and following) and Sayuri’s mother, none of whom appear directly in the text.  They are all referred to as absent characters.  The difficulties of leaving one culture and entering another are discussed (Ch. 12).  It should be noted that, while respected, the Japanese culture is not idealized and comes under some criticism (Ch. 4 & Ch. 7).


The Canadian indigenous are fleetingly referred to in a reference to “Inuit art” (Ch. 2).


Other racial/ethnic minorities living in Canadian society are of course represented by Sayuri herself, who is half Japanese.  Michael reports that he experienced teasing from his class mates for dating a Japanese girl (Ch. 2).


The disabled are absent from the story, but as with the LGBTIQ, they would be harder to include because of the limited number of characters.


Sayuri’s grandparents of course also represent the elderly.  They definitely are guided by past tradition, which is both represented positively and criticised.    The tradition of the old is seen as reinforcing useful values now increasingly ignored by society, such as respect for those who have seen more of life.  Any value, though, is of course relative.  It is good to see this increasingly large, but ignored, section of the community at least referred to in the text, if not depicted.


Looking at the book in terms of society, and more specifically the Marxism/Capitalism debate we see money, career and success depicted as very important in Canadian society.  The McAllister’s world is that of big business.   Sean is a super-rich, rather driven computer technology businessman, and the family home is a “mansion” (Ch. 1 & Ch. 16).    Sayuri is also guided buy success, though not necessarily by wealth.  This wealth enabled Sayuri to go to Europe to enable her music career, and the family’s life is certainly good in terms of luxury.  It is, though, this very wealth that brings misfortune to the family through theft and other means.  The working class is represented by Michael and he is happy in his life and successful on his own terms.  He went to university on a “scholarship” (Ch. 2) and he drives a very ordinary car.  The Banks, being lower middle class, find themselves suddenly reduced to wearing uniforms like servants, though previously they were treated like one of the family (Ch. 2).  In all of this we can see a tension between Capitalist values and the Marxist critique, which tries to argue for a fairer, more humane way of life (Gill Hand.  Understanding Marx: Hodder Educational, 2011, Ch. 6).  Marx “thought deeply about the relationships between people within [ … ] society” (Hand, p. 67).  McDowell has written a book very much about these relationships.


In terms of Structuralism McDowell has written about the fundamental binary of good/bad.  Many ordinary people tend to view the world as ‘nice’ because they believe themselves to be basically ‘good’ and their lives are reasonably comfortable.  Those who have suffered, though, can easily see that this is certainly naive.  As the story progresses, however, this essential, simplistic view of life is abandoned for a more Postmodern, complex view.  Are we simply good units or simply bad units?  Surely life is organic and we are a variety and mixture of many things?


McDowell also draws on the body of knowledge of psychology to make her character and events more ‘real’.  Sayuri experiences the difficulty that many young adults have to deal with when they return home as an adult.  She notes that she is made to feel like a “guest in her own home” (Ch. 2). Surely, though she is just that, a guest, and this is no longer her home, but her parents.  She expects life at her parent’s home to be just the same as when she left, and is very surprised to see that it is not.  Carl E. Pickhardt in his article When “Grown” Kids Boomerang Home to Stay (Psychology Today: . notes precisely this kind of “regression”, or inappropriate return to the past.  Adult children must learn to be precisely that: adult.  They need to realize that they must face the new realities of a shift in relationship with their parents.  The scenario arises, which I will not detail in order to avoid spoiling the plot, in which the victims of abuse blame themselves for the actions of the perpetrator.  The victims of such crimes have certainly been observed to suffer from precisely this kind of, “guilt”, “shame” and “self-blame” (Craig Malkin.  Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?  Psychology Today: ., and, Craig Malkin. Why You Blame Yourself for Bad Relationships – and How to Stop. Psychology Today:  Finally it should be noted that McDowell has Sayuri repeatedly imagine that there must be some reasonable explanation to the very undesirable goings on in her life: she dismisses evil from her mind.  The psychologist and university lecturer Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door (Broadway Books, c2005, Ch. 8) observes that this is exactly what people around sociopaths do (including their own tortured family).  As was observed in the paragraph about the Structuralist view of the book, we tend to be naive, thinking that the entire world is ‘reasonable’ and ‘nice’.


Blair McDowell has written an entertaining and interesting romance/crime novel that raises a variety of issues worthy of consideration.  McDowell looks at personal issues, such as increasing maturity and love, but also considers the wider issues of career, the family, victims of crime and society.  McDowell shows a wise and considered understanding of the life of a musician, but also of life itself.  The novel is paced and structured well, and the characters are realistic.   I am happy to award this book 4 out of 5 stars.


Sonata by Blair McDowell (Book ed.)

Sonata by Blair McDowell (Kindle ed.)