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Sight Reading

by Daphne Kalotay

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Sight Reading By Daphne Kalotay
© Harper
Harper, 2013

In Sight Reading, Daphne Kalotay ensnares her readers in the emotional worlds of Nicholas, a brilliant conductor, his wife Hazel, and Remy, a music student with whom Nicholas has an affair and later marries. Kalotay has a knack for easy, light prose that nevertheless offers profound insights into everyday life. Sight Reading is a terrific beach read without the guilt; it's fast-moving and relationship-driven, and there's next to nothing tawdry about the narrative. Kalotay keeps the extra-marital affair largely off-stage.

Nicholas's best friend Yoni, who struggles with being less successful in both music and love, is a minor character with whom we also become familiar, as is Nicholas and Hazel's daughter Jessie. Like so many modern children, Jessie shuffles back and forth between her parents after the divorce. There are a few other minor characters who appear throughout, but most of the plot involves following the emotions of those closest to Nicholas.

It's a treat to learn about the elite world of musicians in a major orchestra, and Kalotay includes a glossary of musical terms at the end of the novel. Though the book is set among people who are quite different from most of us, the author makes a point of showing how ordinary even extraordinary lives can be. Just like in our own lives, big events are followed by lots of normal days. Kalotay highlights how her characters feel about their successes and failures, how they negotiate those feelings, and how ordinary the emotions of love, boredom, jubilation, and even betrayal can be over the course of a life. Readers will recognize many of their own emotions.
Kalotay strives to connect readers with the true-to-life events and feelings of her characters. Hazel gets unreasonably angry about a spilled glass of wine, but she knows she's being unreasonable, and we know the rug is important to her. Despite this verisimilitude, one frustration was that some of the important relationships and characters are underdeveloped. We're mostly asked to trust that Nicholas is so in love with Remy that it's worth breaking up his marriage; their early relationship is quick and lightly sketched. Hazel comes across as a bit stock; she's the wounded wife whose loss of self is actually printed on her skin - it develops white patches as she tries to rebuild a life with a few different men. When, in the third part of the book, she remarries, we don't learn enough about her new husband to know why he's finally the right one.

The dialogue is well-done and the main characters feel realistic; for the most part the writing gets out of the way of the narrative. There are a few clunkers though that make the book feel less like the serious novel it wants to be. "Albert had perfectly even fingers and the composure of a sunset..."

Though the writing sometimes falls down, the emotional honesty is refreshing: "Nicholas took a gulp and shook his head-at the couple, but also at himself. Never before had he been so judgmental. He had always been open to everything. Wasn't that why everyone liked him?"

Sight Reading bares the emotions of its characters, who so often misunderstand each others' lives and feelings, so that readers can more easily understand their own emotions as they get to know these compelling and realistic people.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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