Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story, by Ruth Sims

A review by Stan Ridge

counterpoint dylan's storyDylan Rutledge is a man driven by passion – a passion for music. For him composing is as much a necessity as breathing. We first see him playing the organ in the chapel at his boarding school. He has stolen the key to the console in order to hear his own music on a proper instrument, for Dylan acts on impulse, and will for his entire life, with no thought for the consequences, for the immediate consequences, that is. He knows it could get him expelled, but that being expelled will also have consequences does not concern him. He is indifferent to what is expected of him and too sure of himself to reflect.

This evaluation of Dylan’s character makes him sound selfish and amoral. He is not. But he has no patience for petty rules that stand in his way. No one will be hurt if he plays the organ – for that matter, no one at the school is as qualified to play it – but he is a student, and therefore it is off limits. Time and again his most noble attribute, absolute dedication, and his fatal flaw, refusing to conform, will cause him unbearable frustration and bring him into conflict: with his father, the school authorities, his mentors in music, people whose favor he must curry in order to get ahead, anyone who feels bewildered and threatened by anything outside the comfort zone of familiarity. In short, Dylan’s antagonist is the narrow-minded comfortable “polite” society of late nineteenth and early twentieth century England, which is, of course, infinitely more arrogant than he, and dishonest, to boot.

Counterpoint ImageFor Ms. Sims’ novel is about non-conformity and prejudice, and even the central love interests that account for the bulk of the plot – this is, after all, a romance – are as much a metaphor for Dylan’s position as an outsider as they are a sine qua non of the genre. The work resonates well beyond a simple story of boy loves boy. The author accomplishes this not by preaching or theorizing; she shows us protagonists struggling for happiness and self-fulfillment in a world of privilege that has no use for them, a meritocracy without merit characterized by cruelty, racism, homophobia and scorn for perceived “bohemianism”.

Dylan also has his supporters and protectors, people like Ivy Daumier, the wealthy patroness of the arts, and the renowned violinist Adler Schonberg, who recognize his genius and overlook the exasperating imperfections that go with it (a few others recognize it but can’t cope with his moods, but most don’t grasp it); people like his school chum Rob Colfax, who will not judge what he doesn’t understand; people like his mother and sister, who love him just for who he is; just about anyone who doesn’t stick labels on people. But Dylan can be difficult, and it takes courage to stand up for him when he has alienated others by standing up for himself.

I hardly need mention that Dylan will discover another, less acceptable and more dangerous passion that will become as necessary to him as music and breathing, first for Laurence, an instructor at his school who gives up teaching to become a successful author, and then for Geoffrey, a brilliant violinist shunned for his gypsy ethnicity. These are the two men pictured on the cover. (Dylan, appropriately, is present in the score beneath them and the instrument that will play it.) Being the intensely single-minded person he is, his two passions inevitably merge into one. As he says, “I always thought my music was one thing and Laurence was something else, separate but equal … But somewhere along the path they became locked together.”

Dylan the lover is no different from Dylan the composer – impetuous, tactless, quick to take offense, uncompromising, emotional, loyal, and utterly consumed by the object of his passion. Both affairs start when he kisses the man he thinks he is just attracted to, unaware he is already in love, and in both cases he is uncertain the man will welcome his advances but does it anyway. For as long as they stay together, he will argue with them about his music and his self-defeating behavior in dealing with the establishment. His compositions, like his caresses, burn and throb with feeling. And he is ready to throw away his one chance to make a name for himself as a composer if Geoffrey is not allowed to perform the piece.

Despite his stubbornness, Dylan listens to his lovers in the long run. He argues with his mentors in music about the same things, only without listening. He does learn, however, even if he will not admit it. He rebels when his first composition teacher, Franz Naszados, tells him to imagine a story when he composes, yet his greatest pieces will be programmatic.

Sims writes a naturally rhythmic and flowing prose, rich in incidents and vivid descriptions. Dylan’s, Laurence’s and Geoffrey’s personalities propel an eventful and engrossing plot. We come to know these three intimately, and everything they say and do is true both to themselves and to life. There is not one unbelievable character in the book, though we see a number of them in black and white, as either good guys we care about or bad guys we despise. Here Sims has turned a convention of the romance novel to her advantage, for this is exactly how Dylan sees people. He changes his opinions often enough, as volatile people do, but this never disorients us because there are others around to tell him he has judged too hastily.

If you enjoy a good love story, if you like books that stir up a gamut of emotions from pity to outrage, if you require some intellectual stimulation on top of all that, put Counterpoint on your “to read” list, and put it somewhere near the top.

Dreamspinner Press, July 2010
ISBN 978-1-61581-533-3 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-61581-534-0 (e-book)

One Response to Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story, by Ruth Sims

  1. Pingback: Ruth Sims | wildeoats

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