Forty-year-old Pearl Swain is, to hear her tell it, every “mean music teacher” that made your childhood miserable. A stifled violinist, she works at McCoy’s, a Los Angeles music shop catering to the kind of people who prefer lutes to Stratocasters.
All McCoy’s employees, save instrument repairman Declan, give lessons and work the sales floor, where inordinate time is spent arguing the relative merits of bassists—the “low end”—versus critically necessary guitarists. In this hotbed, singers don’t even rate.
The book opens with Pearl working amongst her colleagues, a motley lot comprised of the manager, Franklin, a guitarist with an MBA, the aforementioned Declan, Ernest, the requisite ex-druggie, Patrick, a man who never picks up an instrument, yet claims to play them all, and the twenty-eight-year-old Clive, a bassist with the most private students.
Pearl is lonely, sassy, and either self-deluded, an unreliable narrator, or a bit of both. She is also an engaging, funny, lively woman who takes plenty of amusing potshots at Los Angeles and its inhabitants. Los Angeles women, enslaved to the beauty myth, have “starved themselves, chopped up their faces, sucked the fat out of their butts and put it in their cheeks, and shot botulism into their lips…Catch them in a candid moment, and you find someone who’s achy, cranky, hungry, wired, exhausted, and full of contempt for men.”
Being a violinist, Pearl is a compulsive noticer of wrists, remarking that “People (women especially) adorn their wrists with stupid things. Bracelets full of sparkling crap, or expensive watches…Get me started on watches and bracelets, why don’t you. I will identify them as man’s last attempt to keep women down.”
On being from Danville, Virginia, and being a lover of blue-grass, Pearl states, “The fact is, I am from a real place, with a real musical heritage. [Franklin] is from a land that someone dreamed, and the dream is not complete. California is still open to interpretation.”
Pearl herself has given up on the beauty trip, admitting to brown shoulder-length hair and broken capillaries across her nose. Apart from this we know nothing of her appearance; nonetheless, several of her colleagues appear to be what high schoolers used to call “in like” with her.
The younger Clive is even more than in like—he’s besotted, declaring himself attracted to older women. Pearl, initially amused, puts him off, for she has set her sights on Franklin. Her goal is “to make him fall further in love with me. Then, when he’s hooked, I’m going to tell him all about his obligation to get a real job with his MBA, and when he does, I’m going to be a professional musician.”
The above is confusing on a number of counts. Most importantly, Pearl’s marriage, to a UCLA history professor, collapsed because the man could not countenance Pearl’s musical abilities. It’s difficult to imagine this compassionate woman wishing the same fate on another musician. Further, Franklin is, by Pearl’s own account, lacking a sense of humor and, while technically perfect, a soulless musician. None of this makes him her ideal match.
Pearl is still recovering from her husband’s leaving her for a “weepy coed”m when 14-year-old Hallie Bolaris shows up, carrying a crummy violin. She is escorted by her sour aunt, Dorothy Edwards, who has unwillingly adopted her niece after her sister, Hallie’s mother, overdoses on heroin. Hallie’s father, a talented Greek musician (much is made of his foreign unreliability) is also dead. Hallie herself is sullen and the most talented student Pearl has ever known. She has perfect pitch. She can tune her own violin. And her relationship to her talent is a volatile one.
Hall writes beautifully about musical talent, both possessing it and the moral imperative to develop it. Her discourses on the violin are, to coin a phrase, ‘Alex Rossian’ in their beauty. She also conveys how the Pearl Swains of the world feel: they are potential custodians of great talent, with the power to shape and cultivate innate greatness.
Pearl is acutely aware of what has been handed to her, and worries about it. She admits that taking on a talented but fickle prodigy means pouring your ambition into another, who will surely break your heart either by exceeding your wildest expectations or failing spectacularly. Nonetheless, Pearl bends to the imperative of Hallie’s ability, and in so doing, confronts her own past.
Pearl’s parents were impoverished, unhappily married, and found her attachment to music unbearable. Her father went to great, destructive lengths to stop her from playing, effectively ruining Pearl’s chances for a professional concert career. Her mother, a former great beauty, stood by, bitterly lamenting her husband’s shortcomings. Pearl escapes to Los Angeles, where she is able to pursue her passion, albeit to a lesser degree.
Hallie’s adoptive family doesn’t try to stop her outright, but it is soon clear that something is greatly amiss in the Edwards home. Hallie comes in with bruises, which she is dismissive of. She then claims to be pregnant, appalling Pearl, who offers to help though she feels abortion is a sin. She need not worry: at the next lesson, “it’s taken care of.” Pearl’s religious belief is in an interesting seam running through the novel. The notion of Hallie having an abortion makes her anxious, though her age mitigates Pearl’s doubts. Nonetheless, Pearl is deeply religious in her fashion, often invoking God when discussing the meaning of music.
Her religious feeling is surprising without being proselytizing; her feeling for God is simply part of her, like her musical ability. It took me by surprise anyway, making me realize how rarely—apart from Anne Lamott—belief appears in contemporary fiction.
After Hallie’s mystery pregnancy, Pearl’s concerns deepen. She visits the Edwards home and finds it chilling; she contemplates calling Social Services. Despite all this, Hallie and Pearl’s relationship has an underdeveloped quality that undermines the book. Pearl and Hallie worked together for a few months. Their lessons, while full of tart dialogue, go only so far. And though Pearl claims to dream of Hallie, to think of her nonstop, we rarely see her doing so.
In the interim, though, disturbing things are being let slip. Is Uncle Earl molesting Hallie? Are her cousins? We’re never sure, and when Pearl does attempt to take action, her well-meaning efforts backfire terribly. Hallie parts ways not only with Pearl, but the violin as well.
Guilt-stricken, Pearl defends herself, saying, “I did extend myself to her…I tried to help her. She rejected my wisdom and my guidance. She just wanted the quick fix. This was why I resented her.” In fact, Hallie does not come across as wanting the quick fix. She is living in a terrible situation, and knows what she must do to survive. When Pearl confronts her a final time, Hallie, mature beyond her years, tells her “you just have to get over me…Things mostly work out. People have their stories, you know? All that calamity and drama, it’s a way of putting things off. It’s an excuse not to live.”
Christmas arrives, and with it, the book swerves a bit. Franklin fires Clive without reason. Clive seizes the moment to make a move on Pearl. This time, he isn’t rejected. That very evening, having no holiday plans, Pearl goes to a diner, only to run into Patrick, the musician who plays nothing and everything. He takes her to a party in Venice, where she learns he is former a UCLA physicist whose musical knowledge is based on pure mathematics. He drives her home but refuses to sleep with her, parting with some new-agey homilies that send Pearl back into Clive’s arms.
Ultimately, we are to understand that Hallie has changed Pearl. Pearl is now truly ready to live each day fully, mindful of the physicist’s worldview: that the past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously. She allows herself to love Clive, to appreciate her talented new student, Lance, whose parents appreciate his musical precocity, and to simply be in the moment.
Barbara Hall writes for television, and the medium is much in evidence here: the multiple plot strands woven into polished prose, the carefully rendered setting. Yet I can’t help but wonder if Hall was after something a little deeper. Hallie and Pearl needed more time together, more space, more dialogue.
Patrick the weird physicist was left hanging loose, in a very LA fashion; we never learn whether the guy can play or not. As for Pearl’s relationship with Clive, well, Ashton and Demi aside, it strains credulity a bit, at least for me. I lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. Because my brother is a professional musician, I had some exposure to the music scene, which was awash in beautiful girls. But some of those girls were beyond beautiful: they were talented musicians, with voices or instrumental skills matching their flawless faces.
Up against such competition, I have difficulty imagining Clive avidly pursing a woman my age, particularly one of a decidedly non-Demi bent. Ultimately, though, these criticisms can be overlooked, and The Music Teacher enjoyed as a lovely, lyrical look at a world few non-musicians are privileged to enter.