Review

The Song Is You

by Arthur Phillips

THE SONG IS YOU, Arthur Phillips’s fourth novel, takes
some genuine risks. In less capable hands, his romantic, powerful
meditation on music and human connection could have become a
ludicrous farce or a creepy tale of middle-aged sexual obsession.
With his characteristic playfulness and inventiveness, however,
Phillips elevates his story to the realm of literary fantasy and
musical meditation in terms that will speak to readers and music
lovers alike.

Foreshadowing the fundamental role music will play in the novel
and in the lives of its inhabitants, THE SONG IS YOU opens with a
vignette about the protagonist’s father’s tenuous,
fleeting connection with Billie Holiday during a 1953 concert. His
voice, requesting one of Lady Day’s signature songs, makes it
onto a live concert recording. His father cherishes the recording
and, later, seeks more and more copies of it as evidence of that
brief shining moment in his life.

More than 50 years later, Julian Donahue has come to understand
both that moment of connection and that longing for the past that
have defined his father’s life. Julian is a highly successful
director of television commercials, with the knack of joining image
with music with products to create desire in consumers. He’s
gradually coming to terms with rapidly approaching middle age, a
reality that’s even more grating as he copes with a
devastating loss and the subsequent separation from his wife, the
only woman who could ever contain his philandering tendencies.

Since then, Julian’s desire for any woman has been
flagging --- that is, until he sees and hears Cait O’Dwyer, a
22-year-old Irish singer, performing onstage with her band.
Julian’s life has been entwined with music for as long as he
can remember --- even longer than he’s been alive, if his
father’s Billie Holiday story is to be believed --- and he
knows the real deal when he sees it. Instead of joining the
flannel-clad crowds sparring for Cait’s attention after the
show, however, Julian begins a “Cait and mouse” game of
clues, flirtations and points of connection --- all from a
distance. Along the way, he finds himself becoming Cait’s
muse, even though they’ve never met, and he becomes
increasingly infatuated with both the woman and her music.

At times, the novel’s plot --- Julian leaves cryptic
messages for Cait, secretly photographs and tape records her, and
later uses clues in a song to find the spare key to her apartment
and scrutinize her home in her absence --- veers dangerously close
to stalker territory, and Julian’s preoccupation with Cait
verges on the pathetic. It’s a credit to Phillips’s
talent, however, that readers will likely be invested enough in his
clever, playful prose and perceptive remarks on music that they
will overlook, or at least forgive, Julian’s questionable
advances and Cait’s unquestioning acceptance of them.

For Phillips’s prose is indeed remarkable. He cleverly
creates the neologisms he has become known for in other works. In a
dog park, for example, Julian observes “Labradoodles and
Lhasa-puggles, rotthuahuas, cocksunds, schnorkies, and
shiht-boxes.” His prose can be as lovely as it is playful:
“The best of him was a child’s drawing of her on an off
day.”

What will speak most profoundly to readers, especially those who
live, like Julian, connected to a self-made soundtrack to their own
lives, are Phillips’s perceptive and often profound
observations on why, and how, we listen to music, on what we hope
to find or capture in the music we listen to, on whether music
perpetuates connection or merely reflects it. In the end, the
connection between Julian and Cait is all about the ineffable
communication possible through music, a connection and attraction
more significant than sexual appeal alone: “He wanted to tell
her all of this and more, but if he could perfectly express himself
to her, it would sound like one of her own songs. He’d have
to send her a CD of herself. Better yet, she should stand alone in
a room and just sing to herself until she understood
him.”

Readers who have ever sized up themselves --- or a potential
love interest --- based on an iPod playlist will find a kindred
spirit in Julian Donahue and his visceral relationship to music,
and to one musician in particular.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

The Song Is You
by Arthur Phillips

  • Publication Date: March 23, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812977912
  • ISBN-13: 9780812977912