Review of “The Song Is You” by Arthur Phillips

Music, like poetry, captures and magnifies emotions in a way that descriptive, neutral prose cannot. Nor can “real life” provide the background lyrics and sound that turn a mundane existence into a tale worthy of the silver screen. Enter the IPod. In this intelligent and poignant novel by multi-talented Arthur Phillips, the protagonist – 44-year-old Julian Donahue, turns a mid-life crisis into a rock concert movie not only by giving his life a constant soundtrack, but by pursuing one of the most affecting artists on his playlist of singers, a local Irish beauty (age 22) who fronts a rock band that often plays at a club near his home in Brooklyn.

Julian has had a painful existence of late. He and his wife have separated after a year of struggling, unsuccessfully, to survive the death of their two year old son Carlton. His libido is gone, his passion for life is waning, and he can’t imagine how he can get his life back on a positive track. And so he turns to the old familiar tracks he knows: he sets his IPod to shuffle, and taps into the longing expressed by the songs. Julian aches for a return to emotion in his own life, but doesn’t know where to find it, until he hears Cait O’Dwyer sing. He is convinced her songs speak only to him; that the lines she writes have gained “access to the criss-crossed wiring of [his] interior life.” The more he hears her and becomes affected by her music, the more he becomes obsessed by her:

“The dense terrine of feeling in Julian – regret, hope, sorrow, faltering ambition, longing – startles him. It could not be produced in such concentration and quantity without the voice, and so… he comes to crave the voice because it reveals the feelings he could not find in silence.”

Cait’s guitarist Ian was also smitten with Cait from the moment he began to play music with her, but is afraid to tell her so. But he remembers that moment vividly:

“That very first song ended, and they both knew: the sound had been a multiple of them both. And they knew. They sat in a long silence as the sound they had made traveled down the street, out to sea, up to distant stars. Only the low hum of his amp persisted, and he was afraid (as she looked at him and he considered leaping at her) that the pickup from his guitar would pick up his heartbeat and play it for her.”

Later, Ian comes to see Julian as a rival, even though Julian and Cait have never actually met. But that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate, and it is this communication and its poignant outcome that makes up the bulk of the story.

Discussion: There’s a lot to think about at the end: what makes attraction viable? How can you separate need from love, or should you even try? To what extent should we resign ourselves to our perceived fates, or should we “rage, rage, against the dying of the light”? And then there was my own personal reaction to the ending: was the reason I was so profoundly affected (sorry, can’t tell you in what way or it might spoil it for you!) because of my own personal history? I.e., was the reader in the text or would the text have that impact regardless of the reader?

Evaluation: I rarely get the reading experience I had here of a love story being a page-turning edge-of-my-seat kind of experience. And part of the love story was mine, as I fell for the author’s beautifully engineered phrases (e.g., in addition to the quotes given above, referring to face-to-face encounters as “archaic forms of human interaction” and testing the waters of a relationship as taking an “escargotically slow approach”). This is a wonderful book for reading and discussing in the company of a book club, or for reading alone in a room full of flickering candles, with a soundtrack from the moments of your life you most want to relive, when your life was full of passion, and hunger, and loving and loss.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2009


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22 Responses to Review of “The Song Is You” by Arthur Phillips

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    Wow! I can see why Julian was suffering so much after what he’d been through! You really caught my attention when you said part of the love story was yours! I’m wondering why I’ve never heard of this book.

  2. Nymeth says:

    So much to love here! Music is as much of a passion for me as books are, so that alone would make me want to read it. Also, I’m very curious about the ending.

  3. Ti says:

    This sounds like an amazing read. Complex and meaningful. Two things I go for.

  4. Jenny says:

    Ooh I love your description of this book. I want to read this in a room full of candles, LOL!! I have had this book on my paperbackswap wish list but I didn’t remember anything about it. I definitely want to read it for sure now!

  5. zibilee says:

    What a beautiful and moving review, Jill. I also am particularly attached to music and the soundtrack that it makes for my life. My family doesn’t understand when I turn up a song in the car, and say something like ” this is about my feelings for so and so”. I have a deep love of the expression that music gives to my life, and can imagine that I would really love this book. It’s not everyday that you come across a book such as this, and I am eager to read it now. Thanks for an especially poignant review today.

  6. Jenners says:

    Wow … seemed like this tapped some deep wells of emotion for you.

  7. Matthew says:

    My last Arthur Philips read was the dull “The Egyptologist.” This book seems to be a welcoming change of subject matter. As some of us believe in and actually participate in virtual relationship, the issue he addresses in this novel seems so on the dot. I Feel I want to give this one a try, and thanks for your review.

  8. Intriguing…
    Like the commenter above I really didn’t enjoy The Egyptologist much, but maybe I’ll have to give Arthur Phillips a second chance! Your review makes it sound irresistible.
    Silly book review blogs. My to read pile is already astronomically high!

  9. Sadly, for me, this doesn’t appeal — not sure why as I’m a sucker for a good love story. Something about it just rubs me the wrong way! But I’ve got a few Phillips novels on my TBR — I might have to give this one a try.

  10. Julie P. says:

    I am so curious about this one after reading your review. I wouldn’t have thought you would have enjoyed it so much!

  11. Vasilly says:

    I’m reading this review and going “wow”! What a great review. Now I want to read this but it’ll have to wait until next month. 😦 I’m definitely curious about the ending.

  12. sandynawrot says:

    I am so late in making my rounds today, but I am here. This was a totally gorgeous review. Any book that I read that incorporates music generally takes a reading experience and pumps it up a couple of decibals for me. Revolution, for example, just freaking BLEW MY MIND. I must read this. I am sure it is just what I need.

  13. Jenny says:

    Arthur Phillips is way up high on my TBR list, but I haven’t even heard of this. I am a bad TBR-list-haver. I only knew about The Egyptologist and Prague and The Tragedy of Arthur.

  14. I”ve wanted to read this for awhile simply because I loved the title, but what a fantastic review! Now I feel like I *must* read it!

  15. Alyce says:

    This just seems too “emo” for me. Honestly when I saw the cover I thought it was going to be a novel about drug use & recovery. Just another reason not to judge a book by its cover I guess.

  16. Ann says:

    I stopped by your blog today.

  17. not sure I would like this one, but I am impressed with your high opinion of it.

  18. stacybuckeye says:

    You convinced me in the last paragragh again! Stop doing that, Jill, my wish list books don’t appreciate the arrival of new siblings. It only means they get less attention.

  19. Your review got to me…I often feel that way when I’m listening to the songs from my late teen years and the music evokes such longing for those emotions and experiences….I must read this!

  20. Margot says:

    Great premise for a novel. I know I’ve had the same feeling while listening to my iPod with my headphones. The music or audiobook goes straight (and privately) into my ears and it seems it’s meant just for me. I can see there is lots to think about while reading this book.

  21. Frances says:

    Loved, loved, loved this book and that opening bit was the most near perfect piece of writing of which I have had the pleasure. The ties to music and the ebb and flow of the prose in a near melodic fashion held me throughout.

  22. Pingback: Top Ten(ish) Books I Read in 2011 « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

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