As the title signals, music dominates Steven M. Greenberg’s novel Six Quartets.
In an interesting twist, the story’s structure echoes that of a musical composition, with the narrative divided into segments, each headed with the name of a Beethoven string quartet and subdivided with musical notations from that piece. For example, the first section is titled “Opus 18, No. 1,” then broken into chapters labeled “Allegro con brio,” “Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato,” etc., just as in Beethoven’s arrangement.
The story begins with the “Prelude,” as Evgeniy Baranov, a Russian emigre and principal first violin of the Cleveland Orchestra, is forced off the road, leaving him concussed, his wife dead, and Sofia, their three-year-old daughter, without one eye, blind in the other.
The main narrative begins years later when we meet Clifton Holloway, a self-absorbed, arrogant ophthalmologist who views patients as insufficiently appreciative of his genius. Meanwhile, the blind Sofia, now a teenager, listens endlessly to her beloved Beethoven, masters the violin like a prodigy and compensates for her lost vision by sharpening her remaining senses, including her ability to understand the psychic pain of others, often before they recognize it themselves. Evgeniy is proud of these accomplishments, but worries about his daughter’s survival when he’s no longer around and so accepts tutoring assignments and wedding and bar mitzvah jobs to build financial reserves for Sofia’s future.
Ultimately, Sofia serves as a catalyst for others, including Holloway and her father, to resolve issues in their own lives by teaching them the messages of strength and determination contained in her master’s music.
The author handles the plot’s complexities with aplomb throughout. Some, however, will find his resolutions facile, as with the doctor’s instantaneous transformation from self-absorbed devil to angel. Still, Greenberg’s firm command of language and style while maintaining the story’s relentless pace overshadows such drawbacks.
In the end, readers will appreciate the story’s message: that what the world sees as a handicap may sometimes be a secret strength.