Monday, January 29, 2018

Book Review: "The Music Shop" by Rachel Joyce

"Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent."

—Victor Hugo

Music has always been one of my greatest passions, alongside my love of reading. I have the largest iPod Apple ever made, and it doesn't accommodate my entire music collection—how can I get rid of a song?

For me, music is such a trigger of emotion, and a specific song can easily transport me to a time, a place, a special memory. So why it took me so long to read Rachel Joyce's lovely The Music Shop, I'll never know.

"Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song. He wasn't talking a full-blown symphony. It would be a few notes; at the most, a strain. And it didn't happen all the time, only when he let go of being Frank and inhabited a space that was more in the middle. It had been this way ever since he could remember."

Frank owns a record shop on a rapidly deteriorating, dead-end street in a London suburb. It's the late 1980s, and vinyl is struggling to survive over cassettes and the increasingly popular CD, but Frank is a purist. He'll never sell anything other than records, despite the reps from the different labels trying to convince him that he's making a huge mistake. Vinyl sounds the best, and provides so much more of an experience for the listener.

Even though his store, and the other stores that surround it, isn't doing that well financially, the store serves as a gathering place for people in the neighborhood, people who come to Frank in need of help, and he finds them the exact song they need, even when they don't know it. Into this chaos one afternoon comes a beautiful woman, Ilse Brauchmann. Frank feels an instant connection to her, with her regal bearing and her slight German accent. He finds himself thinking of her constantly, yet Ilse talks of a fiancée, and clearly has secrets she doesn't want to divulge.

Nearly all his life, Frank has never let anyone get too close to him, for fear of getting hurt as he had in his past. But he has fallen head over heels in love with Ilse, despite the fact that he knows next to nothing about her. When she asks him to give her music lessons, after some initial reluctance, he dives in wholeheartedly, teaching Ilse about all different songs, artists, and genres of music, and sharing the way those songs made him feel. It is the closest he can come to sharing his heart with her.

As he tries to come to terms with his feelings, Frank is struggling financially to keep the store afloat, to fight those who refuse to sell him records because he won't buy CDs. He tries to keep his neighbors feeling secure despite the street's falling into greater disrepair, and a development company making everyone offers to buy their property to build something new. When Frank finds out that Ilse isn't quite whom she says she is, it threatens to debilitate Frank for good, as the betrayal opens old wounds and revives old hurts he had never quite gotten past.

"Sometimes all that people needed was to know they were not alone. Other times it was more a question of keeping them in touch with their feelings until they wore them out—people clung to what was familiar, even when it was painful."

The Music Shop is a book with such heart and charm, such vivid characters, and it was truly such a lovely read. Joyce perfectly captures the mood of London in the late 1980s, as the gulf between the haves and the have-nots grew ever wider. She also captures the passion of a true music lover, the beauty of friendship, and the walls we build around our heart to protect ourselves after we've been hurt too many times.

As I learned from one of her earlier books, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (see my review), Joyce is a consummate storyteller who draws you in and makes you care about her characters. One character in particular, Frank's employee Kit, felt strangely underdeveloped, and you never really understood him despite his key role in the plot.

I did feel the story took a little too long to truly get going, and then dragged a bit toward its conclusion. But in the end, even if I wasn't surprised by the ending, the book really touched my heart, and the music lover in me savored every note. The Music Shop is one of those books that felt like a warm hug, kind of like Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

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