Book Review: A Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

by Brittany B. |11/06/2019

A Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas is a short novella that highlights older queer women who have played in an orchestra together and worked alongside each other for years. The twist of this love story comes from a fantastical bargain that has kept Heledd at arm’s length of her true happily ever after with the woman she’s secretly loved for years:

Heledd, leader of the first violins, has been in love with her irrepressible conductor ADuetforInvisibleStrings-CoverRosemary for years.

A secret from her past means she must hide how she feels, but the time they spend working and performing together is enough for Heledd – until a near miss with a speeding car forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.

When the orchestra is mysteriously summoned to perform in the Welsh village where Heledd grew up – a village she hasn’t returned to in decades – the life she’s made for herself begins to unravel, and her secrets threaten to escape.

I have to say for as short as this novella is (clocking in at just 64 pages), the characterization of the two main women of this story is spot on. The reader doesn’t get a ton of narrative description of the women, but snippets over time. Their personalities are readily apparent from the very first scene of them sitting together in a coffee shop. Heledd, who the story follows in the third person, is tight-lipped, reserved, a touch severe when it comes to music, and clearly has some sort of past she’s keeping a secret. Rosemary, Heledd’s conductor and the woman’s she’s been steadily falling more and more in love with over the years, is charismatic, personable, yet determined and unstoppable when she puts her mind to something.

As a reader, I really enjoyed seeing the representation of two starkly different women who had a shared passion for music who were also in their mid-forties and fifties. This novella is slightly more poignant because of the women’s respective ages regarding how long they’ve withheld their feelings for one another. Heledd has solid reasoning for not wanting to get involved with someone for reasons and resides herself to merely being happy by being able to be around Rosemary, in whatever capacity that that may be. It’s sweet, a little sad, but felt genuinely authentic. Not sad because they’re “closeted” women, but sad because they aren’t but still unable to voice their feelings for one another for various reasons. It was refreshing to read a book about women who had feelings for each other without the worry of “but is she into women, too?” plaguing the protagonists’ narrative.

The narrative itself had some hit and miss spots with its pacing, and the ending felt extremely rushed to me, but I’ll admit that I’m not as well read in novellas and am not sure if it is a fault in the writing or outline of the story or the structure of a novella format itself. Even though there were moments where I wanted more time with something to fully understand what was happening or less time with something that didn’t feel relevant, Thomas had several excellent scenes where she made the passage of time feel effortless. My favorite was this snippet from page 54:

     ‘Remember our first ever performance?’ Heledd said.
‘How could I forget? I’m still not sure how it’s possible to lose a tuba.’
Heledd laughed, and for the rest of the evening they sat and told each other stories that they both already knew.

This scene struck me because I knew exactly what that evening looked like and how long it lasted while; I could clearly see how the women spoke to each other, potentially touched each other platonically as they laughed together as they recanted stories. And I was able to get it from a simple sentence. Thinking about it, each reader has a unique mental image of the scene based on their own personal experiences, but that is what made the scene so heartwarming to me. It was simple, yet different readers could have a different experience with it and still enjoy it.

Where A Duet for Invisible Strings fell flat for me was the entire precedent of the secret that is running Heledd’s life. Like I said, the novella is 64 pages long. There is an ambiguous secret that Heledd won’t talk about, not even when she’s alone to herself in her flat. There are indications that she is some sort of fantastical humanoid, but the novella never explicitly reveals what she is – not when she’s alone, not when there is a perfect moment in the narrative to do so towards the end, and not by the end of the story. The only information the reader is given is that she made a bargain with Them to be allowed to stay in the human world. I assume she’s some sort of fae, based on what small details the reader is given through the narrative about the parameters of her bargain, but there is nothing in the descriptions that confirms any of my assumptions. As a reader, I don’t want to assume anything about a character, especially something as big as not being wholly human.

Being a novella, I knew it was going to be short, but I honestly think the story could have benefited from being a touch longer and taking the proper time to slow down and explain what Heledd is and her circumstances and really unveil the mystery of who exactly They are to help the reader understand more. As a reader, I was left confused about the plot as a whole, frustrated that there were no clear character arcs despite having distinctly different and likable characters, and ultimately unsure what I was supposed to gain from reading the story.

There were moments I liked within the story.  I loved the way Thomas explains the feeling of playing in an orchestra but have to admit that I am a bit rusty on my musical terminology (and am sure if I didn’t have a base knowledge of music and symphonies, I would have been completely left in the dark when music was the main focus of a scene).  And ultimately, I was happy to see queer representation in the way of older women and not young twenty-somethings. I just wish there was more of it and that it was thoroughly fleshed out.


Rating: 2rainbows
2 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Reader: Music enthusiasts who are looking for solid older queer women representation and readers who are okay in not knowing the complete story.

You can find more from Llinos Cathryn Thomas on Twitter.

Book Provided by Author: The Queerblr was provided a copy of A Duet for Invisible Strings for free by Llinos Cathryn Thomas for the purpose of doing a review; this has in no way affected the review and rating of the book that was written by The Queerblr.

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