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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Review of THE MUSIC SHOP by Rachel Joyce (New Release)

4 Stars
Frank Adair, “a gentle bear of a man,” owns a music shop on Unity Street in an unnamed city in England.  It is 1988 and sales of CDs are overtaking sales of vinyl but Frank refuses to sell the former.  He is a music therapist in that he can find the perfect piece that each customer needs; he may not give customers what they request, but he is invariably correct in giving them what they need.  One day, Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious German woman, appears and turns Frank’s world upside down. 

This book reminded me of The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George in which Monsieur Perdu, the protagonist, is a literary apothecary who prescribes novels; using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls.  Frank is an equivalent musical apothecary who prescribes music to help people “through illness, grief, loss of confidence, and loss of jobs, as well as the more daily things like football results and the weather.”

Frank has “endless patience” with others and their troubles and his life’s mission is to help people:  “he had a kind of empathy for everyone.”  Though he listens to others’ feelings all the time, he tends to maintain a distance from people:  “He was perfectly fine with emotions, so long as they belonged to other people. . .  . Easier to disconnect from that part of life and turn his back on love altogether.  Easier to find what he needed in music.”  His goal is to “run a small shop in a dead-end street, without the complications of love or ties – . . . [to] put everything into serving ordinary people and avoid receiving anything in return.”  One friend observes that “Frank was so busy loving other people he had no room to accommodate the fact that someone might turn round one day and love him back.” 

Frank reminded me of the protagonist in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  Like Fikry’s life, Frank’s is altered by the arrival of a woman at his shop, someone who challenges him to become more involved in life.  A friend tells Frank, “’Helping someone is entirely different from being involved.  Helping is all on your own terms. . . . You expect other people to change, Frank.  But what about you?  What are you afraid of?’”  Unfortunately, Frank does not seem capable of the type of personal transformation that Fikry undergoes.  Also, like Fikry’s world, Frank’s is rapidly changing.  Not only are CDs replacing vinyl records, but a development company is trying to buy all the buildings on Unity Street in order to demolish them and build new housing. 

There is a cast of quirky but endearing characters, most of whom are fellow shopkeepers on Unity Street.  In some ways they are forgotten people living on the margins of society:  an ex-priest, a female tattooist, a Polish baker who talks to his dead wife when he bakes, and twin brothers who own a funeral business and sometimes hold hands like children.  The most memorable for me is Kit, the exuberant klutz who serves as Frank’s shop assistant.   

There are some wonderful touches of humour.  For his shop, Frank buys a rundown building which needs a lot of work but he is undeterred:  “He admitted to the estate agent he didn’t have any experience with DIY but guessed it couldn’t be so hard if you got a book from the library.”  Feeling very nervous while meeting a woman, Frank decides “to focus on the button of her white blouse, third one down.  It was a perfectly ordinary little button.  Nothing could go amiss if he looked there.”  Kit and the waitress in the Singing Teapot café provide comic scenes as well. 

Though I enjoy music, I am not very knowledgeable about the subject.  This book is actually very informative.  In the flashbacks to Frank’s childhood when his mother taught him how to listen to music, there are also anecdotes about various composers and musicians.  When I didn’t recognize a piece of music mentioned, I found myself downloading it and listening to it as Frank advises.  In the end, Frank gives music lessons to the reader as well as to customers.  And of course music teaches about life:  Jazz was about the spaces between notes.  It was about what happened when you listened to the thing inside you.  The gaps and the cracks.  Because that was where life really happened: when you were brave enough to free-fall.”

This is a charming, gentle read.  Though sentimental in places, it emphasizes the healing powers of love and music.  Readers who enjoyed Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy or Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand will definitely be enchanted by this novel as well.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.