“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?