For those who want their fiction to start with a huge hook — a first sentence that grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go — “Musical Chairs” by Amy Poeppel is not the book for you. Rather, this charming story begins like a lovely overture, with an introduction that gets you used to the rhythm and feeling of the piece, and slowly, you become entranced and rapt in the characters and plot of this beautifully composed novel.
Bridget, the daughter of a world-famous composer and conductor, is a cello player in the Forsyth Trio, a group she founded with her best friend, Will, after they graduated from the Julliard School, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world. The third member of their trio was Gavin, who left their trio to join a symphony orchestra in Australia. Ever since, Bridget and Will have struggled to find a violinist who will play and make a permanent third in their trio.
The story begins, after a quick 27-year-peek into the past, in June as Bridget makes her way to her summer home in Connecticut, near her father’s palatial estate. Her own home is rather more comfy than glamorous, but there is a dilapidated barn, a guest house, a pond, and lots of space — everything that her life in New York City lacks. She is getting the place ready for her boyfriend, a novelist, to come and spend a relaxing summer with her there. She envisions a romantic time, coffee on the porch, strolls in the charming town, and a chance to deepen their relationship.
So it’s rather upsetting, to say the least, when via an email, said boyfriend breaks up with her. As it turns out, karma might have been at work because both her adult children end up at her doorstep after crises in their lives have them running back to safety – and to the arms of family.
Poeppel does a lovely job narrating the story through the third person points of view of not just Bridget and Will, but also their children, and many of the other fascinating characters. We meet her father Edward, London-born, aristocratic, charming, extremely wealthy and artistically successful. Marge is the woman who was nanny for Bridget and her sister Gwen, and then Bridget’s children’s nanny, and she is now the overseer of Bridget’s father’s estate. Marge is more mother than employee, and she basically raised both girls because their mother died young. We also grow to like Jackie, hired to be Edward’s assistant, unused to living on an estate, equally unused to dealing with the whims of the wealthy, and feeling very insecure in her new role.
In fact, one of the themes of the story is that no matter how successful and accomplished one is, there are always insecurities that plague us. Perhaps not the lofty Edward, but the other, more relatable characters all have, in addition to many strengths, some definite frailties. Bridget feels she has never succeeded musically in a way that would make her father proud of her, and she’s lonely. She wants a romantic relationship. Will worries that their trio will not provide a future for him as he must cobble together a livelihood with private lessons and studio work.
The story is a lovely look into the world of classical music as well. There’s romance, intrigue, secrets that need to be aired, and an ending that isn’t a surprise at all, but rather a lovely finale to a beautifully played concert.