The Sound Between the Notes
By Barbara Linn Probst
She Writes Press: April 6, 2021
$16.95, 313 pages
Barbara Linn Probst’s second novel, The Sound Between the Notes, is a portrait of a no-longer-young woman whose many compromises for family life eventually lead her to a search for self.
Susannah Lewis is approaching 40 and happily married to scientist Aaron. When their son, James, was born, Susannah gave up her ambitions to be a concert pianist, determined instead to be a devoted mother. She is trying to exorcise the ghost of her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption at birth. Although she was raised in nearly ideal circumstances by her adoptive parents, Dana and Tyler, the question of her mother’s identity and the reason she chose not to keep Susannah have haunted her.
The Sound Between the Notes sensitively explores the issue of nature vs. nurture. Dana made clear to young Susannah that she had an inexplicable gift – no one in her adoptive family was musically talented — and dedicated herself to helping her daughter fulfill her potential. When Susannah turned 18, she began a search for her birth mother to find out, among other things, where her musical talent came from. Susannah knows that her achievements through her college years were a combination of an innate musical talent and her mother’s encouragement. She wants to know “who she is.”
Now, having succeeded in raising a bright, charming, and all-around “good kid,” Susannah now yearns to return to her musical career. In the intervening decade and a half, she had continued to cultivate her musical gift through practice and lessons with the inspirational taskmaster of her youth, Vera. Presented with an opportunity to perform her favorite piece, Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-Flat Major, at a huge arts fundraiser in Manhattan, she becomes obsessed with her “big chance” to achieve her long-delayed dream.
Probst weaves together Susannah’s exciting present with a series of flashbacks to her late teens and twenties, when she searched for and found her birth family in Texas. As she prepares for the concert, a medical condition arises that could potentially affect her playing and which brings back thoughts of her birth family.
The Sound Between the Notes is an absorbing character study of a woman obsessed with artistic success after thinking her earlier life choices had made that impossible. It’s also a tightly plotted family mystery that probes questions of birth and adoptive family dynamics and their impact on the child in question, an examination of a marriage threatened by the protagonist’s dual obsessions, and an intimate look into the powerful spell that making music holds over musicians.
Like Queen of the Owls, her impressive debut, The Sound Between the Notes shows that Barbara Linn Probst is an expert at depicting the tension between family expectations and the need for artistic self-expression.