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Book Review: The Song is You by Arthur Phillips

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“Julian Donohue’s father was on a Billie Holiday record,” begins The Song is You by Arthur Phillips. But be forewarned: Phillips rarely delivers a story that unfolds the way you expect. The reader soon discovers that the elder Mr. Donohue played no instrument and sang no song. His sole contribution to an obscure live recording by Lady Day is a shouted request from the audience.
Yet even small interventions in the life of the famous can have important repercussions. After all, these are stars we are talking about – and the smallest shifts in their movement can have disastrous, or beneficent, gravitational effects. In this case, the chance intersection of a fan with his idol sets in motion a chain of events that lead to romance, tragedy, courtship, marriage and the birth of a son. The Song is You is the story of that son as he negotiates through his own maze of love and loss.

A fan’s fascination with a famous performer also serves as the centerpiece of Julian's personal narrative. Donohue’s midlife crisis is set in motion by the death of his own son. In the aftermath, his marriage falls apart, and his shallow career as the director of television commercials for banal household products can hardly fill the gaps in an untethered life. In this setting, he finds himself attracted to young Irish singer, Cait O’Dwyer, who is on the brink of fame.

She is almost half his age, and surrounded by well-wishers, gladhanders and starry-eyed admirers. But some storyboard sketches he leaves behind at a performance — illustrated career advice drawn on the backs of coasters — capture O’Dwyer’s attention, and take on an almost oracular importance in the singer’s mind. She begins adapting her songwriting and on-stage demeanor in response to these anonymous suggestions. She is obsessed with her fan, just as he is obsessed with her.

Donohue finds that he is now an important person in the life of this star-in-the-making, and the two awkwardly connect in a series of phone calls, emails, web postings – but never face-to-face. In time, both parties raise the ante by making hidden invasions into the most private recesses of the other’s lives.  Yet they still keep their distance, both emotional and physical.  Under other circumstances, Donohue would be a stalker – but how can that be the case here, when the woman in question encourages his reckless and secretive behavior?

Is this a romance? Or just a sick game of thrill-seeking that will inevitably end badly for one or both parties? Phillips has constructed an intricate plot that unfolds like a turbocharged and reciprocative game of cat and mouse. Donohue and his singer idol don’t know themselves whether this escapade will be redemptive and life-changing — the love story that ends “happily ever after” — or merely fizzle out once the novelty of the intimacy from afar is replaced by a face-to-face meeting.

A novel about celebrityhood risks collapsing into the same hollow tabloid- and publicity-fueled buzz for buzz’s sake that infuses much of our contemporary culture – culture in which the syllable “cult” now supplies the operative meaning. Yet Phillips perceptively circumscribes the human angles below the hype, and forces our attention on what the cult of fame does to those in elevates – as well as to those who do the heavy lifting. What kind of relationship can a fan have with a star? What happens when the line blurs between real life and the ways it is depicted and exploited for a song? Do we love the artist or merely the romantic projections of our own imagination stirred by the music?

I will be forgiven if I praise the “soundtrack” for this novel. No, there is no companion CD that comes along with the book. Yet seldom have I read a work of fiction that is more infused with song. This is the love story for the iPod generation, and a suitable playlist is ready for almost every stage of the tale. Phillips, who was once a jazz musicians (as well as, according to his bio, a child actor, a failed entrepreneur, a speechwriter, and five-time Jeopardy champion), sprinkles his novel with some of the most inspired musical commentary that you will find in any book.

The minor characters contribute to the fun and misdirection of A Song is You. Phillips serves up an aging rocker, who seems dangerously close to falling into a stereotype – except that (again) the author adds the surprising twist that forces us to reconsider our views. We also get fresh takes on the resentful guitarist in the band, the flirtatious director’s assistant, the alcoholic jazz pianist, and even the smug homicide detective. Best of all is Donohue’s brother Aidan, a social misfit with a sharp wit who may be the most entertaining figure in the book His caustic dialogue includes descriptions of his sibling’s consumer electronic remote controls (“black simulacra of deistic control laid out before me like so many thunderbolts. But you will tolerate no Zeus but yourself.”), the MRI unit that checks his health (a “heavenly white training coffin”) and syrupy cabaret music (“the slurpy crooning of the dentured elderly” he complains).

Phillips maintains control of his whirlwind plot until the final storm breaks. At times, the coincidences and fateful moments he relies on to keep the music going are a bit much, but the elegance of the narrative draws the reader in deeper at every stage. Perhaps most admirable is the novelist’s ability to weave a story that is simultaneously humorous and dramatic, dreamy and melancholy. This is a hard balance to achieve, but Phillips gets it just right.

I am reminded of those iPod playlists — so central to the unfolding of The Song of You — where the moods shift and the keys change, but (if they have been constructed with the right vision) the overall effect is cumulative not atomistic. Certainly this is a book that goes into my favorites list, flagged for frequent repetition on random shuffle. I now wait to see what our author, like the rock and jazz stars he describes so well, will do for an encore.

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About Ted Gioia