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The language of Joyce Hackett’s debut novel, Disturbance of the Inner Ear, nails an air of genteel desparation that calls to mind the 19th-century tragic-heroine tales of Eliot and the Brontës—so well that mentions of cell phones and plastic surgery are downright surreal. But also arresting: Disturbance reminds us why certain sensibilities are timeless—and why the vulnerable are still the best vehicles for both sadness and joy. Isabel, an American former cello prodigy who hasn’t performed since her parents died in a car crash, is left alone and resourceless in Milan after her elderly instructor and lover also expires. So naturally, she begins teaching viola to a lonely rich kid and has a tentative affair with gigolo surgeon; with them, Isabel builds a shaky new life, and family, for herself. This may sound like a lot to follow, but it’s all told with such an original mix of dreaminess and candor—and with such honest characters—that it’s nowhere near as preciously wacky as it sounds. Hackett reads at 4 p.m. at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. $6. (301) 654-8664. (Anne Marson)