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Review: The Blue Guitar, by Ann Ireland

Back in the days when jazz was still developing as a major force in American music, musicians would hold what were called “cutting sessions.”
It was a jam session in which guys would try to blow everyone else out of the room. As intense as these may have been, it’s hard to imagine them coming even close to the kind of competitiveness that is an integral part of Ireland’s novel.
Toby Hausner is a guitarist. Eleven years ago, as a hotshot teenager, he crashed and burned at a guitar competition in Paris. Too much pressure. He may play at the genius level, but he has trouble staying grounded.
Now he’s attempting a comeback at the International Classical Guitar Competition in Montreal. Just about anything could bushwhack him . . . a brief memory lapse, a case of the shakes or even a bad fingernail. And he’s not alone. Every guitarist in the competition is in the same boat.
But Toby has the added pressure of his earlier experience to dog his footsteps. That, and parents who may not have given him the kind of genes he needs. His mother succumbed to mental illness at an early age. His father, ostensibly a model of moral rectitude, develops some strange behaviour patterns after his wife’s death and may not be as solid as he seems.
And then there’s Jasper, Toby’s partner, (although Jasper prefers the term “lover.”) Jasper is a needy, anal retentive fussbudget . . . and that’s being kind. Jasper’s dream is that the two of them would stay home all day in their very neat apartment and watch daytime TV. He’s having serious trouble at work and Toby is his safe port in what is becoming a rather stormy sea. His fear, of course, is that Toby will win the competition and become a travelling guitar star.
In the midst of all the truly neurotic guitarists, there’s Lucy. Lucy is a middle-aged wife and mother who has a life and who is there simply to prove to herself that she can actually play. Not only does she reach her goal, she provides some much-needed balance in the novel.
One other element is a virus that is spreading through Toronto, where Toby and Jasper live. It’s sort of mysterious, just floats around until it comes into play at the very end.
Strong writing from one of Canada’s respected authors. Good characters. Maybe a bit too much of guitar players obsessing about their playing.

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