Book Notes: The Song Is You

(Look at me, posting on my shiny new blog again already! Yippee!)

Arthur Phillips - Song is YouI just finished reading The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips.  I had never read anything by Phillips before. His first book Prague: A Novel, which he wrote back in 2003, inspired some interesting discussions, but I never did get around to reading it. The Song Is You is Phillips’ fourth novel, and has received loads of buzz and acclaim. Plus, the nerds interviewed him, and that does pique the interest.

Phillips is obviously very smart.  As in, Smaaaaart. He knows how to turn a phrase and has such a broad and specific knowledge of language that you get the sense he chooses each word with painstaking precision.

His is a case in which an impressive intellect does not always serve the writer or the story.  Phillips’ use of language – which can most accurately be called high falutin’ – distracted me from the story over and over again.  I kept thinking, “Well, he seems mighty pleased with himself over that little diddy!”  I could almost see his self-congratulatory smile as he inked yet another impressive, but precious, metaphor.

More disappointing than the over-inflated language was the main plotline.  In The Song Is You, a middle-aged commercial director named Julian Donahue develops an infatuation with a young singer, Cait O’Dwyer, on the verge of fame.  Julian, cloaked behind hi-tech communication media, becomes protector, adviser, muse, and seducer to the young star.  She represents his second chance at happiness.  For Cait’s part, she yearns for something real and trustworthy in her increasingly false existence.  The two are intrigued by each other, and by the possibilities of their relationship, yet they are simultaneously convinced that the other will become annoyed or bored once they meet in person.  Their desperate need for the other’s affection and attention results in creepy stalker antics, such as breaking into each other’s homes and hotel rooms.  I found these sections – the roundabout conversations and dropped clues and hastily avoided meetings – to be annoying and boring, indeed.

I am not blind to some of what Phillips is trying to do here.  Julian is a sad character, grieving an immeasurable loss, yet giving the impression that he’s healed.  His grief manifests in his need to have Cait be the perfect woman for him, and he for her.  He needs to believe, even when this is clearly make believe, that she understands him, though they haven’t ever met.  Some of it was truly thought-provoking, when it wasn’t aggravating.

All the cyber-stalking (and actual stalking) between Julian and Cait takes place before a backdrop of Julian’s history.  And that history is beautifully, subtly written.  Phillips weaves two love stories throughout the backdrop – the one between Julian and his estranged wife, and the one between Julian’s parents.  Julian’s parents, a soldier and his French wife, share a love of music and pass it on to their son.  Music, for Julian, is not just chords and vocals.  It is his legacy.  It is love.  And love, in the real relationships in the book, is complicated.  It is tainted.  It is broken.  It is repaired.

All this to say that spending the majority of the book hearing about the odd/creepy obsession between Julian and Cait while all these wonderful details swim in the background is as frustrating as listening to an over-zealous George Michael wannabe bang on a synthesizer while Andrea Boccelli sings an aria in the background.  Oh, and what’s that faint sound?  It just might be Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, but I can’t be sure.   (Why the hate for GM?  In truth,  I’ve been known to hum along to “Wake Me Up,” but his energy just seemed to fit here.  To any George Michael fans among my readers, no offense was meant.)

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