Reviewed by Ted Gioia
“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 in 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
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 roughly 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.
The Song is You
by Arthur Phillips
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