The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

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. I 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.

34203744My first Rachel Joyce novel was a home run! The Music Shop is a page-turning, earnest, feel-good novel, something I’d say we all could use more of these days. It helps if you’re a music lover, but even if you aren’t this novel has plenty to offer. In fact I could see myself someday reading this again for comfort in a time of stress.

Most of the book takes place in 1988, around a struggling record shop that’s on a shabby, quiet street in a nondescript (I think unnamed?) British suburb. It’s owned by Frank, a man who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right album to shake up a person’s life in the way that they need. As good as he is as connecting people with the right music, he is a failure in the love department, not letting anyone get too close to him emotionally. We get hints of past trauma in his upbringing but it’s not until later in the book that the mystery of his past is revealed. Meanwhile, the CD age is upon him, and his record vendors are pressing him to stock CDs in his shop. He refuses, affronted by their lack of character.

But CD sound was clean, the reps argued. It had no surface noise. To which Frank replied, “Clean? What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish?”

Add a cast of quirky, mostly sweet fellow Unity Street shopkeepers and a bumbling, adorable shop assistant named Kit, and you have a winning atmosphere for the action of our story. A beautiful woman named Ilse Brauchmann faints outside Frank’s shop one day, and his life is never the same. Unable to face what he really feels for Ilse, he starts giving her “music lessons” at a nearby cafe, bringing her albums to listen to with accompanying listening notes. Frank’s shop business is not so good, as people start to want CDs and the city falls on hard times in general. People just aren’t shopping on their little street like they used to. As we watch Frank try to find ways to save his shop, and as he gets closer to Ilse, we also get glimpses of his past in chapters that depict his unusual upbringing by his less-than-maternal mother, Peg. She is the one who makes music so important in his life, but she also does a lot of emotional damage to young Frank with her parental shortcomings. And we come to find that the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann has some secrets of her own.

I just loved this book! I was occasionally frustrated with Frank, for being too guarded and obtuse, but I forgave him when I found out what had scarred him from wanting to love again. The novel had a cinematic feel to it, sort of like a combination of “High Fidelity” and a good rom-com like “You’ve Got Mail” or Notting Hill.” A couple of scenes made me laugh out loud. And the writing is really lovely, not overly descriptive but evocative all the same.

The water was blue-gray with the day’s reflection and trees, and dimpled as far as they could see with the falling rain. They sat for a long time, just watching the rain and smiling, her with one oar, him with the other. By now their hair was so wet it stuck to their heads, and the shoulders of her coat were more black than green, but they stayed out there in the middle of the lake, until the cloud shifted and the evening sun came out, and everything around them, every leaf, every blade of grass, every rooftop in the distance, shone like a piece of jewelry. 

This is the kind of book that made me want to sit down and listen to music the way I used to listen to it in high school. I’d sit on my bedroom floor and do nothing else but let the music wash over me, playing my favorite songs over and over, for hours. I’ve never had a record player of my own, I came along too late for that; my first music was cassette tapes and then the first ones I bought on my own were CDs. And now almost all of my new music purchases are from iTunes. But record albums are making a big comeback, and I’m actually considering getting a record player for the first time.

In any case, whether you’re a music lover or not, this is a heartwarming book that celebrates community and friendship, and taking the risks necessary to live a full life filled with love and relationships. If you’re searching for a lighter contemporary read, one with heart and wit, look no further than The Music Shop.


At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

“Are you any happier here now, love?”  When she could not answer, he sighed.

“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively.  “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so.  Are you happy?”

“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy.  I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”

“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know.  I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”

“Pleasure is not happiness.”

“No.”  But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds.  On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.

at-mrs-lippincotesElizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.

Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII.  They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds.  Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves.  Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.

Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship.  Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.)  Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)

Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation.  “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed.  “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you.  For ever and ever, amen.”  As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.

We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters.  (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.)  She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well.  They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward.  However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night.  He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.

She exasperated him.  Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women.  One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes.  Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.

Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it.  She seemed authentic to me.  She adored her child but felt stifled in  her role as wife and mother.  She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom.  She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role.  Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.

This novel was a real treat to read.  This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know.  She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read!  Merry Christmas to me!

And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Don’t you LOVE it when you read a classic novel and it turns out to be AMAZING?  And you wonder what on earth took you so long to pick it up?  My first book for the RIP Challenge is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a book that many of you have read and loved and one I have been meaning to read for quite some time.

517mee7CTTL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Romantic, that was the word I had tried to remember coming up in the lift.  Yes, of course.  Romantic.  That was what people would say.  It was all very sudden and romantic.  They suddenly decided to get married and there it was.  Such an adventure.  I smiled to myself as I hugged my knees on the window seat, thinking how wonderful it was, how happy I was going to be.  I was to marry the man I loved.  I was to be Mrs. de Winter.  It was foolish to go on having that pain in the pit of my stomach.


For those who haven’t read it, here’s the (very brief) synopsis from Goodreads:

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

When we first meet our heroine, we know that she is the wife of Maxim de Winter, and we know that something ominous has happened to their former home, Manderley.  It’s in the third chapter that we learn how the nameless second Mrs. de Winter came to be married to the much older, richer, and more sophisticated Maxim. From the get-go she is full of self-doubt and anxiety about her relationship with Maxim.  He is not exactly a reassuring figure, and we learn early on that he is tortured by something traumatic in his past having to do with this previous wife.  Mrs. Van Hopper, the lady our unnamed heroine serves before she marries Maxim, tells her that Rebecca drowned in a tragic boating accident a year before.

Once our heroine is at Manderley, she is adrift in the role of mistress of the manor. Echoes of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, are everywhere, from the rhododendrons outside and the treasured pieces assembled in the morning room to the rhythms of housekeeping and the daily routine.  Our poor heroine doesn’t even get a tour of the whole mansion from her new husband, nor does he give her any hint as to how to run the household.  Add to that the severe, malevolent head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who was unnervingly devoted to Rebecca and it’s no wonder our poor heroine is terrified of making the wrong move and feels that all the staff are laughing at her inexperience.

After a bit of a slow start (really just the part before she marries Maxim,) I devoured this book.  I loved how timeless it felt.  I loved the slowly building atmosphere of tension and suspense, from the opening dream sequence chapter to the momentous costume party and beyond.  I found our unnamed narrator to be incredibly sympathetic.  How many of us have been in love with someone who didn’t match our intensity, who continually disappointed us and left us wanting, but we were desperate to hang on to him, so we forgave and made excuses again and again?  I loved the plot twists that kept coming in the second half of the novel.  At one point my jaw literally dropped; I looked at my husband sitting next to me on the couch and said, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t see that coming!”  I absolutely loved the writing.  The dialogue sparkled and the detailed description of the house and the grounds made Manderley come alive.  I loved this description of the library when our heroine first sees it:

Whatever air came to this room, whether from the garden or from the sea, would lose its first freshness, becoming part of the unchanging room itself, one with the books, musty and never read, one with the scrolled ceiling, the dark paneling, the heavy curtains.

It was an ancient mossy smell, the smell of a silent church where services are seldom held, where rusty lichen grows upon the stones and ivy tendrils creep to the very windows.  A room for peace, a room for meditation.

Our heroine is not just a young, naive dunderhead, however; she continued to surprise me with her contemplative observations on life, such as this one when she meets Maxim’s grandmother, Beatrice, for the first time.

I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people.  Children we understand, their fears and hopes and make-believe.  I was a child yesterday.  I had not forgotten.  But Maxim’s grandmother, sitting there in her shawl with her poor blind eyes, what did she feel, what was she thinking?  Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch?  Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say, “Well, that clears my conscience for three months?”

I have deliberately avoided writing about anything that happens in the last half of the book because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  But Rebecca is an absolute gem.  It’s quite possibly the perfect book for chilly Autumn nights.  It’s an exciting, suspenseful mystery layered within a atmospheric, Gothic romance.  I am eager now to read more of Daphne du Maurier’s novels – I had no idea she’d written so many!  And when I publish this post I’m going to pop in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie version with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  I’m excited to see how it compares!

Have you read Rebecca or seen the film?  What is a classic novel that it seems everyone else has read but you?  What makes you choose to read a classic rather than a newer book?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?


How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Thus has reading wound in with living, each a compliment to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Penelope Lively’s How It All Began was just lovely.  That’s absolutely the word for it:  lovely.  It came along when I was craving something relatively straightforward and contemporary, something with human relationships at its center.  I fell into its pages and finished it in two days.  I also fell in love with some of the characters along the way.  It examines the role of a chance encounter in one’s life and how it can have a domino effect outward, changing the lives of relatives and acquaintances in unimaginable ways.61fyG1hzI2L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

Charlotte has been mugged, and as a result has broken a hip.  Retired and independent, she now has to temporarily live with her adult daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband, Gerry.  (Rose describes Gerry like this: “Gerry is fine.  Who’d want a husband who would run you ragged?”)  Because she has to get her mother settled into her home, Rose misses work for a few days.  She’s the assistant to an elderly historian who is forever writing his memoirs; he enlists his niece, interior designer Marion, to help him out temporarily. Marion isn’t able to meet her lover, the already married Jeremy, because she’s helping her uncle.  She leaves him a text, which his wife accidentally discovers.  Meanwhile, during her recovery, Charlotte tutors an Eastern European immigrant named Anton in reading English, and he and Rose strike up a beautiful friendship.  Everyone in the book (a large cast of characters) ends up feeling the ripple effect of the mugging, with chance encounters and disruptions leading to new relationships and opportunities.

This reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, without the somewhat overbearing narrator.  Charlotte is really the center of the book, and she’s a wonderful character.  She’s a voracious lifelong reader, and her musings on the reading life felt authentic.  She also ponders the indignities of aging and being dependent on others, and reflects on her very happy marriage to Rose’s late father, Tom.  She can’t help but compare her marriage to what she observes of Rose’s union with Gerry.

Here are two people who live equably together, and maybe that us as much as anyone can ask.  Charlotte is embarrassed to be a witness to this, to be thinking about it.  She has never actually lived with Rose and Gerry before, close as she has been to them.  And she is aware that these thoughts are prompted because she knows that this marriage is not like her own; it is colorless, by comparison, it lacks the zest, the give and take, the hours of discussion and debate, the hand on the knee, the arm round the shoulder, the silent codes of amusement and of horror.  The laughter.

11797374I’ve read three books previously by the prolific Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger and Passing On, both years ago, and more recently, The Road to Lichfield (you can read my review here.)  She’s an underappreciated author, I think, at least here in the United States.  With the last book of hers I read, and with this one, I came away thinking, “Why don’t I read her more often?”  She’s a refreshingly intelligent, observant writer, portraying ordinary people with great skill and compassion.  She is less somber than Anita Brookner and less consciously witty than Barbara Pym, but I think if you like either of those authors you would like Lively.  I classified this as “Comfort Reading” on my Goodreads shelves, but I’m not altogether sure it’s the right term, now that I think about it.  Charlotte’s nuggets of truth about the human condition and the poignancy of a romance (I won’t spoil the plot further) make it feel too real to be totally comforting.  Perhaps it would be better placed on my “Life Affirming” shelf – so much of what we experience is due to random chance, but the relationships we hold dear are what carry us above life’s slings and arrows. Lively’s book is a warm and generous reminder of this.