The Song Is You: A Novel
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., July 17, 2009
The Song Is You: A Novelby Arthur Phillips
Random House, 272 pp., $25
It's been a while since an opening sentence hooked me like this one did: "Julian Donahue's father was on a Billie Holiday record." The nine pages that follow compose a riveting prologue that can stand on its own as a wonderful short story. It also sets the stage nicely for Phillip's compelling fourth novel. While Donahue the elder names his son for jazz saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, this is hardly a jazz tale. Instead, at its heart, this is a story about how music affects us emotionally and psychologically; how we obsess over it, surrender to it; how the artists who create it cast a spell over us. It's a lesson about why music matters in our lives. In this case, the music's rock & roll and the artist in question is the up-and-coming Irish singer Cait O'Dwyer, who Julian happens to stumble upon by chance in a dive bar near his Brooklyn flat. His interest quickly becomes consuming, and in short order, Julian is stalking the singer, not without her encouragement. As Cait writes and performs songs that stoke the anticipation of their meeting, her career is rising meteorically. There are complications, of course: Julian's dissolved marriage, Cait's not so subtle admirers, and let's not forget the omnipresent specter of Julian's father's analog obsessions and how they ultimately shape his son in today's Digital Age. Phillips offers genuinely astute insights into the aesthetics of making music and why it plays such a powerful role in chronicling our lives, regardless if the inspiration comes from Cait O'Dwyer or Lady Day.