Book Review: Four Seasons by Jane Breskin Zalben

FOUR SEASONSFirst published on 17th April, 2011 in StarMag

Author: Janet Breskin Zalben
Publisher: Knopf, 336 pages

ALLEGRA (Ally to her friends and family) Katz has been playing the piano since she was four. She’s now 13 and belongs to a pre-college music programme at the Juilliard Music School. Her dad is a violinist with a famous quartet, and her mother trained in opera and now sings the blues in jazz bars in Manhattan’s Alphabet City.

Ally’s life revolves around music. She has to practice six hours a day and spends practically the whole of every Saturday at Juilliard, attending various music workshops and classes – theory, chamber, composition, solfege, master class, and her piano lesson proper with the relentlessly demanding and unsympathetic Miss Pringle.

“It felt like the world was passing me by,” says Ally when she can’t make it to her best friend, Opal’s art exhibition. Slumber parties, just hanging out eating hotdogs or watching movies, dating, all the things that most teenagers take for granted have to take a back seat to her music career, or rather making sure that she has music career to look forward to – “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice.”

But Ally is torn. She loves playing the piano yet she fantasises all the time about giving it up. It’s a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying, the mere contemplation of which causes her to break out in hives.

Ally’s struggle to figure out what’s right for her, her ultimate (or is it?) decision and how she copes with it is what Four Seasons is about. The book is set over a year, starting in spring, and divided into four parts (and seasons), each prefaced by an excerpt from the corresponding Antonio Vivaldi sonnet – apparently the composer wrote these sonnets before he composed his famous violin concertos and based the musical compositions on these pieces of poetry.

Mozart season When I first came across a promotional blurb for Four Seasons (Alfred A. Knopf, 322 pages, (ISBN: 978-0375862229) by Jane Breskin Zalben, it immediately brought to mind one of my favourite children’s/Young Adult books of all time – The Mozart Season, which is about another Allegra – 12-year-old Allegra Leah Shapiro – a gifted violinist and the summer she spends practising Mozart’s fourth violin concerto for a competition.

The two girls have so much in common – their name, their musical parents, their pet cats and their loving and practical Jewish grandmothers, not to mention their deep love for music. However, they have very different lives, and the tone of the books are also vastly dissimilar.

The Mozart Season is, on the whole, a happy, positive book. Allegra’s parents are loving and supportive. So is her music teacher, a wise, warm character whose scenes in the book conjure up visions of Mr Shorofsky from Fame (the film and the TV series) – not his crabbiness but his white-haired, bespectacled Teddy bear appearance. The Mozart Season’s Allegra also has two well-adjusted and loyal friends, with whom she enjoys a pretty regular tweenhood. The challenges she faces are not soul-destroying although they require her to do some soul-searching.

While there is much that is positive in Ally’s life (her upbeat best friend, a boy from school who shows an interest in her, the sympathetic music tutor who assists Miss Pringle, passionate parents), the negative elements are overwhelming. While her parents are loving, they have issues of their own, and seem to be living somewhat vicariously through her. She has no personal life to speak of and does not seem to be allowed to even consider some rest and relaxation. Worst of all is the uncompromising, harsh, almost cruel Miss Pringle whose method of getting the best out of her students is by being as lukewarm as possible (at best) in her comments about their playing, or else (at worst) downright caustic.

Miss Pringle’s treatment of Ally made me think of Amy Chua’s mad methods of bringing out the best in her kids, as described in her controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In this book, Chua reveals that one of her daughters finally decides that she’s had enough. What does Ally decide?

Ally’s first person teenage voice – confused, at times flippant, at times hypersensitive, vulnerable and self-conscious – rings true, as do her irrational fears, and her simple but deep desires. Four Seasons may be a more accurate portrayal of what life is like for a talented youngster who is seriously pursuing a career in music. Although The Mozart Season’s Allegra and the other musicians in her life love music, you don’t get the feeling that their lives would fall apart if they didn’t do it fulltime. Also, there are other things going on in their lives, whereas in Ally’s world music seems to be the be-all and end-all of the people in it.

The Mozart Season is still the book I’m going to read when I want something uplifting and inspiring, comforting and life-affirming. However, I think Four Seasons is the book that will have more appeal for young readers who will probably be able to relate more readily to Ally’s angst, her indecision and melodramatic view of the world, than to Allegra’s general air of equanimity.

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