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The Song Is You

Book Review by J. Conrad Guest



Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Random House (April 7, 2009)

Price: $25

ISBN-10: 1400066468

ISBN-13: 978-1400066469 



I was intrigued by the premise of The Song Is You, the latest offering by Arthur Phillips, the bestselling author of Prague: the power of music, its ability to invoke emotion and bring to mind memories, both the good and the not so good.

Julian Donahue is a 40-something director of commercials in Manhattan. Julian inherited his love for music from his father, who lost his leg in the Korean War. Before his deployment, he attended a Billie Holiday concert at the Galaxy Theater, where he met his future wife. The concert was recorded and released on vinyl, and Julian’s father can clearly be heard calling out to Miss Holiday to sing “I Cover the Waterfront.”

After he loses his leg, it’s Julian’s mother who pursues Julian’s despondent father into marriage.

Flashing forward 50 years, Julian fills his iPod with the tunes that chronicle his life—music that recalls for him the important memories of his life: his past loves, the day he met his wife-to-be, the day his son was born.

The story picks up shortly after the tragic death of his three-year-old son, victim of a virus diagnosed too late. Separated from his wife, the depressed Julian finds little solace in work and no escape in the casual sex in which he indulged during the early years of his marriage, prior to the birth of his son.

Then one night at a club, he sees Cait O’Dwyer, an Irish singer in an emerging rock band soon to release their first CD. Initially, he views her with his director’s eye and leaves, for the bartender to give to her, a series of cartoons with captions on several coasters, ideas on how she can improve her stage presence.

Thereafter he becomes known to Cait and her band mates as Cartoon Man, and the two trade text messages and email, never meeting. Julian quickly becomes Cait’s muse, as evidenced by lyrics written to him that appear on her Web site; yet he comes to fear his growing obsession as that of an adolescent.

Arthur Phillips is a writer of no small amount of talent, and he comes with solid credentials. Winner of the New York Times Notable Book (Prague) and the Los Angeles Times Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, The Washington Post calls him one of the best writers in America. The Song Is You is ambitious, the plot elaborate but, in places, unconvincing.

Phillips tries to paint Julian as a sympathetic character. The reader is expected to admire him for giving up his philandering ways, to become a better husband, after the birth of his son.

The plot features events that are as unlikely as faster-than-light travel. Cait writes and posts to her Web site lyrics that invite Julian to help himself to the key to her apartment, which she has left for him under the mat. He subsequently lets himself in when he knows she is not home.

Julian eventually follows Cait to Europe, where her band tours several cities, and her star is on the rise. Their cat and mouse game ends on the final night of the tour with Julian waiting for Cait, naked in her bed, while Cait waits for Julian in his room.

While some readers may view Julian’s fixation on Cait, more than half his age, as the great love of his life, it is what it is: the midlife crisis of a mostly unlikeable protagonist who plunges headlong into stalking the object of his obsession.

Phillips’ writerly talent is evident. His narrative is sharp, his dialogue witty. Yet the characters, with the exception of his brother Aidan, fall flat. His estranged wife, Rachel, is weak; her insistent love for Julian, despite the pain he has caused her, will leave many readers rolling their eyes in disbelief.

Despite Phillips’ credentials, I found this, his fourth novel, a disappointment.

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