Whether it be within the epochs of our lives or the novels that engage us, we tend to so desperately seek resolution. Uncomfortable sitting with our emotions as they are, we placate ourselves with baseless assurances that at some point an outcome will be reached, allowing the experience to be neatly tucked away within the deepest recesses of our memory. At the same time, we profess that there is a reason for everything and that our circumstances are meant to convey a meaningful lesson or help us grow. Having told myself some version of the above countless times, I’ve come to respect the life — or the fictional account — that simply is what it is and doesn’t presume to be anything loftier than that.
Written under the guise of a historical document to be included within a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach is a truly original work of fiction for the narrator, Caroline (Newby) Maclaren, also presents as the writer herself. Nearing the age of ninety, she has been given the task of documenting the life of her deceased husband and renowned composer, Robert Glencoe Maclaren, so as to obtain funding to restore the Maclaren Community, which at one time served as a retreat for musicians so that they might immerse themselves within their work; yet, the details of Mr. Maclaren’s life and career come to take a backseat to Caroline’s experience of their cold and lifeless marriage, the progression of his debilitating and gruesome illness and the way in which she finally came alive upon falling in love with Anna Baehr, the young woman who nursed Mr. Maclaren at the end of his life.
The tone in which Chamber Music is written is so very true-to-life that I continue to find myself relating to it as a memoir rather than a work of fiction. With most of the events taking place around the turn of the twentieth century, I can’t help but to wonder if Grumbach, who was born in 1918, acquired an inherent sense of the time period from friends, family members or other associates just slightly older than herself, making formal research largely unnecessary. The discretion, speech and sensibility of the time appear consistent, genuine and respectfully regarded as far as I can tell. Although I’ve never been one for historical fiction, I must admit that I found myself utterly enraptured with each and every turn of the page.
That being said, I would have appreciated a more visceral sense of the relationship between Caroline and Anna. Although we are told that they were deeply in love, I didn’t feel as though I had a palpable understanding of the dynamics between them. Their shared experiences and moments of intimacy, for me, lacked depth such that I came to wonder if something in their relationship was amiss. On several occasions, Caroline questions whether Anna experienced closeness and connection in the same way that she had, and Anna’s desire to comfort one of the melancholic musicians (who was also in love with her) illustrated, if nothing more, at least an inability to establish proper boundaries.
In spite of a niggling feeling that Caroline and Anna’s romance was not as idyllic as it was made to seem, I found the novel as a whole to be compelling from start to finish. Indeed, the strength and honesty of the climax solidified my immense appreciation for Chamber Music as well as a desire to explore the author’s other works. Whereas one seeking resolution or pithy life lessons is likely to be disappointed, I found Grumbach’s handling of the conclusion to be perfectly suited as a lasting testament to the life of a woman who knew what it was to live for only the brief span in which she knew what it was to love.