The protagonist of Cassandra Garbus' first novel, "Solo Variations," bears the bubbly name Gala, but she ain't no party, she ain't no disco, she ain't no foolin' around. A 26-year-old Manhattan oboist gifted at conveying sadness in her music, she rises at 5 a.m. each day and practices for six hours, facing the bell of the instrument into a kitchen cabinet to dull its sound. Eight months before the narrative's opening, Gala flubbed a performance in front of 1,200 people -- critics, family and friends -- and she revisits that failure as faithfully as she practices. "My fingers shook so badly I couldn't even get through the fast passages. The violas plucked their strings: small, shallow sounds where my solos were supposed to be."
Promotional copy for the book frames it as a Generation X tale. It is, if you think of 20-somethings not as slackers but as nearly humorless loners suffering from a self-punishing brand of ambition. "Just convince yourself you're not nervous. Repeat it over and over," counsels Gala's boyfriend, a violinist on the rise. But they're both too experienced to believe practice always makes perfect. Complicating Gala's attempts to discover who she is, solo, are her boundary-trampling and just-separated parents, who profess love for her even as they repeatedly trace, and thereby carve, their own flaws in her character.
Even if Gala is not aptly named, the novel is. Garbus, a musician herself, has found in this sphere of musical strivers many almost musical ways to evoke and then echo what it's like to be 26 and essentially alone -- numb and dizzy at the intersection of so many roads about not to be taken. Gala's life is a variation of her mother's (who stopped playing piano at 26), as well as her father's, her boyfriend's and two of her girlfriends'. People rub off on each other in Gala's world, catching as if by contagion each other's expressions and language, experimenting, just as musicians do, to find the best ratio of control to passion, pattern to improvisation.
Gala's musings lack even slight levity, and the plot's tempo is definitely andante despite the inclusion of two romantic betrayals and the threat that Gala might abandon her true love, the oboe, altogether. But in descriptions of the quotidian aspects of musicianship, such as Gala making her reeds, which must be painstakingly gouged from smooth cane, there is beauty to spare. Examining one of those imperfect reeds, her teacher lifts it to the light and says something that could easily apply to his student: "You took a little too much out of the heart."