three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-The Song Is YouFormer jazz musician and Jeopardy! contestant Arthur Phillips won critical acclaim and the 2003 Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for Best First Fiction for his debut novel, Prague ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002). His subsequent novels, The Egyptologist ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004) and Angelica ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2007), have also received widespread critical praise.

The Story: Julian Donahue, a middle-aged ad executive mourning the death of his young son and the dissolution of his marriage, wanders into a Brooklyn bar one wintry night and watches 22-year-old Irish pop singer Cait O’Dwyer perform. Moved by her music, he anonymously scribbles professional advice on the backs of some coasters, and she incorporates his words into a new song, creating a secret bond between her and her mysterious new muse. They begin to communicate through voice mails, e-mails, blog posts, forum comments, and photos surreptitiously snapped on cell phones. But their flirtatious digital dance grows more desperate as the two become increasingly obsessed with each other.
Random House. 245 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400066468

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"His maniacally brainy (brainiacal?) narrative voice seems to have been steeped in and tempered by the romance of all the songs that permeate the story, songs both embedded and overt, real and invented. … The Song Is You is smaller, more focused and more character-driven than Phillips’s earlier books, and it’s not only a welcome new direction, but also a novel impossible to put down." Kate Christensen

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Song Is You takes on loneliness, alienation, middle age and what it means to feel passé and weighted down by your past—‘older than baseball players (even knuckleballers).’ Yet despite these sober concerns, Phillips’ sparkling prose makes for a seriously fun read." Heller McAlpin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a daring concept in a novel, this strange ballet between two damaged lovers—two souls so mortally afraid of tainting their dreams that they go to extraordinary lengths to keep each other at a distance. … Phillips navigates an ostensibly arid present that turns out to be richly human, filled with unexpected grace, surprisingly connected by cellphones and instant messages." Marie Arana

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For the first two-thirds of The Song Is You, I kept thinking that if I had an iPod and a Y chromosome, I would understand and love this book, that I would glide over its pages instead of slogging through it with an ever-changing mix of appreciation, exasperation, and just plain perplexity. But by the end, I’d surrendered to its slow and sneaky pace, its oblique eroticism, its self-conscious but undeniable cleverness, and, yes, even become a grudging fan of its author." Julie Wittes Schlack

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Phillips takes amazing risks with the plot—Julian’s wooing comes straight from the Serial Killer Handbook. (Step 4: Break into target’s home and go through her belongings. Check.) … To balance that, The Song Is You offers a brilliant take on the music scene and a melancholy meditation on song." Yvonne Zipp

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a novel with a ridiculous, poorly articulated plot, and yet at the same time it’s a novel that showcases Mr. Phillips’s sparkling gifts as a prose stylist and demonstrates a psychological depth and emotional chiaroscuro that was missing in earlier works like Prague and The Egyptologist, which tended to be clever and eye-catching but often glib. … The problem is that Mr. Phillips never manages to make the relationship between Julian and Cait remotely credible." Michiko Kakutani

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"By page 200, I was dying for them to meet; instead, I had to settle for commentary on the Manhattan scene, the inflation of characters like Julian’s brother and Cait’s long-suffering, sneaky guitarist, and preposterous plot contrivances apparently designed to affirm that technology can bring us close even as it drives us apart. … Fans of the dependably erudite and usually witty Phillips’ earlier novels … won’t find the depth they’re accustomed to." Carlo Wolff

Critical Summary

Though critics praised Phillips’s playful, clever prose, they diverged in their reactions to his latest novel. Some appreciated his portrait of electronic-age relationships, while others found it difficult to accept the "hokey and contrived" (New York Times) coupling of a creepy stalker and his improbably nonchalant victim. Some saw Phillips’s hidden song titles, playlists, and repetitive tributes to iPods as ingenious depictions of the music industry, while others viewed them as blatant marketing ploys. The critics’ disagreement seemed to stem from their reactions to Phillips’s previous novels: detractors saw Song as a growth of his talent, but fans viewed it as something of a betrayal. An exploration of loneliness, alienation, and the power of music, The Song Is You is a tuneful take on a peculiar romance.

Also by the Author

Prague (2002): Phillips’s debut novel follows a group of misguided young American expats as they search for love and meaning in post-Communist Budapest.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. As it turns out, neither Cait nor Julian has perfectly correct information about the other when they make their decisions. At each step of their relationship, do their actions (or inactions) make sense to you?

2. Is Julian a stalker? A romantic? Is this a love story?

3. What role does music play for the characters in The Song Is You? How and why does music “reopen” Julian’s world? Does it “pay him back”? What does the narrator mean by a “mutual possession”?

4. What do Billie Holiday and the recording of “I Cover the Waterfront” symbolize for Julian’s father? For Julian?

5. Alec’s gallery uses a cocktail napkin that reads: “following the act of love, all creatures grieve.” Rachel resents Julian’s “retreat from feeling,” his fading out to “present less and less of himself to hold on to.” How does Rachel grieve? What realizations do Julian and Rachel reach on their own? Together? How are grief and memory intertwined?

6. “You have to reclaim yourself somehow, or you’ll walk forever like this: among the living but not one of them. Nobody will touch you.” How does this advice relate to Julian’s role as muse to Cait? Why does he consider being her muse “plenty, for now”?

7. Describe the significance of how Julian and Rachel met with regard to what we know about their relationship and Julian’s eventual relationship with Cait.

8. How does technology both promote and hinder connection in the novel?

9. Discuss how aspects of music—art, talent, fame, nostalgia, feeling— can simultaneously inspire both self-love and self-loathing for characters in The Song Is You. How does the struggle for permanence relate? Courage? Longing?

10. On the subject of singers, Julian suspects that “the only real ones, the pure ones, were the dead ones.” More broadly, how does this statement ring true in Julian’s life? Cait’s? Rachel’s? Do you agree?

11. Discuss the significance of space and silence in The Song Is You: between characters, in songs, onstage, and even “the gap between the man and the music.”

12. How and why does Julian reach the conclusion that Cait is the “necessary catalyst” to making Carlton “a present joy in his life” rather than a “semisweet torture from his past or a future stolen from him”?

13. Explain the significance of the Japanese sleeper stories Julian’s father told him as a young boy in relation to the novel. Do you agree with Julian’s father’s conclusion that “love is not sufficient. It never has been”? Does Julian? How do Julian’s and Aidan’s reactions to their father’s stories reflect their differing relationships with him?

14. Why does Aidan delete Cait’s voice mail from Julian’s answering machine? Do you agree that this is “best for everyone”?

15. In Budapest, Julian insists that “a perfect solution, a perfect ending and a perfect beginning” existed. Why is a “factual soft focus” required in Julian’s “perfect” world? Given this, how do you interpret the end of the novel? Is it a “perfect ending”?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.