Before I even get started, you should know that Arthur Phillips is going to be reading tonight (May 21st) at 7 p.m. (doors at 6:15) at the Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall Minneapolis, 55401. He’ll be joined by Chan Poling (The Suburbs, New Standards) and Steve Seel (from 89.3 The Current). And me. Well, I’ll be in the audience.
If it weren’t for Christa’s rave review, I’d have never picked up The Song is You. See, I read Arthur Phillips’ Prague back in 2002 and was underwhelmed. After that I promptly forgot Arthur Phillip’s until Christa decided to read this latest novel. I even warned her all sassy-like, “good luck, his first novel sucked” because I am a bitch.
And now that I’ve finished this book that my makes my heart shake and my palms sweat, I have to admit she was right. This book is charming and lovable.
Heaven help me, but I am going paraphrase Chuck Klosterman here. In his book Fargo Rock City, Klosterman said Paul Westerberg had the incredible knack for writing intensely personal songs that made people think the songs were about them. One of the main characters in Phillips’ novel, Cait O’Dwyer, has the same knack. That’s how this twenty-two-year-old Irish chanteuse snags the mind and imagination of forty-something commercial director Julian Donahue.
On a winter night, Julian stumbles into a bar where about-to-make-it-big Cait and her band are playing. He’s immediately smitten with the music and the musician and picks up the demo CD. Julian leaves behind some advice for Cait on a set of coasters, and thus begins their weirdo courtship. She writes songs that seem to be about him. He calls her when she’s on a local telethon. She leaves the key to her apartment under the mat, he sneaks and makes dinner only to leave before she gets there.
They cat and mouse all over New York and then London and then Paris and then Budapest. The whole will they/won’t they is the plot string that pulls you through the book. There’s the usual cast of oddball secondary characters — Julian’s socially inept know-it-all brother Aidan; his ex-wife Rachel, who Julian is forever tied to in grief over the death of their two-year-old son; and creepy old rockstar hasbeen turned painter, Alec.
And while the will they/won’t they plot is interesting enough, this novel is so much more than that. This is about growing old or up, getting famous (or unfamous), and mostly its about what exactly music means to us.
Julian’s love affair with music started when he was young, influenced by his jazz-obsessed dad and it follows him throughout his life. Like most of us he charts his own history by the music he listened to at the time. And when he reaches a low-point in his life, when he feels sexually, emotionally, and creatively dead, it is music that resuscitates him.
This is no cheesy, cheeky Nick Hornby kind of dicklit novel, and I think tha’s why I liked it so much. Really, I’ve read about 318 rock and roll books by and about musicgeekboys who refuse to grow up. They are all the same, after about the sixth one.
This is different because Julian’s a grownup and he’s dealing with grownup shit, which is, well, refreshing. And he deals with it through music by trying to understand the music, and what makes it so difficult is that he tries to understand Cait through the music, and that just can’t be done. How a person relates to music is one of the most intensely unique and personal relationships we ever have, and Julian has to figure that out the hard way.
Which is what makes this book so rad.
Listen to Arthur Phillips on MPR’s Midmorning with Kerri Miller: