When she was attending Piner High School, novelist Aja Gabel played cello in the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra and formed her own quartet, playing on weekends for dozens of weddings all over Wine Country.
“I’m actually planning my wedding right now, and all I can think is, I don’t want to have a wedding like all the other weddings,” the 36-year-old joked from her home in the Silver Lake district in Los Angeles. “It is funny to see which ones go by the book and which ones come from the couple.”
For her debut book, “The Ensemble,” which was released in May from Riverhead Books, the 36-year-old author poured out her passion for classical music and turned it into a lyrical story that deftly weaves together the ruthless requirements of the music business with the messy, offbeat demands of real life.
It’s basically a love story about four friends, set over a soundtrack they create themselves, with the help of Mozart and Beethoven, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. The words and feelings are closely entwined with the notes and the melodies, just like in Gabel’s own life.
“I loved playing, and I also loved writing, and eventually I decided to combine the two,” Gabel told a crowd of her fans gathered at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa earlier this summer, which included her mother and her former cello teacher. The debut novel already has received glowing reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.
Set in Northern California and New York, the story is told by the members of the Van Ness Quartet — second violinist Brit, cellist Daniel, violist Henry, and first violinist Jana — from their salad days in 1994 as a fledgling quartet until 2010, when they reach a critical crossroads.
“I wanted to cover the point from which they have to decide to become professionals and the point where middle age makes them question everything,” Gabel said. “It’s a major career-turning point for them.”
Despite their individual quirks and emotional scars, the members of the quartet manage to create a family, the kind that is brought together by choice rather than blood. And like music itself, those connections ebb and flow as they move through the river of time.
“It’s the kind of book you will love if you just want to hear about how friendships change microscopically over time,” a reviewer wrote for Vox.
After graduating from high school, Gabel studied creative writing and music at Wesleyan in Connecticut, then decided to leave music behind.
“It will always be a part of me,” she said. “I just didn’t want to suffer through a physically grueling life of playing the cello.”
After Wesleyan, she got an internship at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., dabbling with the idea of going into arts administrator.
It never occurred to her that writing was a real job. But she kept doing it, and eventually got her MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia and her Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston.
For her dissertation, she wrote an very early version of “The Ensemble,” then kept plugging away as it grew in scope from a weekend in the life of a quartet into four people making a life together over the course of 20 years.