Cue up Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” because Rachel Joyce has written a new novel, which means there’s a party goin’ on right here.
"The Music Shop" is an unabashedly sentimental tribute to the healing power of great songs, and Joyce is hip to greatness in any key. Her novel's catalogue stretches from Bach to the Beach Boys, from Vivaldi to the Sex Pistols. Crank up the turntable and let these pages sing.
The story’s hero is “a gentle bear of a man” named Frank who owns a run-down music shop on a back street in England. His establishment is something between an old-fashioned record store and a walk-in therapy clinic. “For the Music You Need!!!” blares a handwritten poster in the window. “Everyone Welcome!!” Inside are two listening booths made from Victorian wardrobes. Thousands of albums are arranged according to Frank’s private order, but you’ll want to file this book right between Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” and Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue.”
The year is 1988, and CDs are pushing vinyl into oblivion, but Frank won't abide the antiseptic sound of those shiny little disks. "We Only Sell VINYL!" the store window makes clear. "CDs aren't music," Frank says. "They're toys." His attitude is not just aggressive nostalgia (although it is that, too), it's a determination to hold onto a way of life, a way of engaging with objects and people. "We need lovely things we can see and hold," he tells an incredulous CD salesman. "Yes, vinyl can be a pain. It's not convenient. It gets scratched. But that's the point. We are acknowledging the importance of music and beauty in our lives. You don't get that if you're not prepared to make an effort."
Frank’s specialty is finding just the right song to lift your spirits, quell your anxiety or exorcise an annoying earworm. No algorithms or best-selling charts for him. “If you told Frank the kind of thing you wanted, or simply how you felt that day, he had the right track in minutes,” Joyce writes. “It was a knack he had. A gift.” For a man left at the altar on his wedding day, Frank plays Aretha Franklin’s “Oh No Not My Baby.” To the frustrated mother of a sleepless infant, Frank prescribes the Troggs’s “Wild Thing.” When a shoplifter dashes off with “Invisible Touch” by Genesis, Frank chases him down and makes him listen to “Fingal’s Cave” by Mendelssohn.
Peace restored. Humanity uplifted.
Joyce populates Frank’s store with an adorable crew of fellow misfits. There’s a gruff tattoo artist, twin undertakers, a retired priest and an earnest clerk who dreams of someday wearing a name tag. (“He had a way of talking in exclamation points, suggesting everything was a marvelous surprise.”) Together, they serve as Frank’s cautious advisers and devoted fans as he carries on his crusade to save a failing neighborhood and a vanishing musical format. “When a man has the passion to stand up for something crazy,” Joyce writes, “it makes other problems in people’s lives seem more straightforward.”
But there’s a bass line of unhappiness running deep in Frank’s spirit. His boundless empathy, his devotion to helping everyone else allows him to ignore his own festering grief and loneliness. “Frank was very much a single man,” Joyce writes. The shop is all he needs. “It was safer to stay uninvolved.”
Given the general melody of romantic comedy, you can probably guess how this tune develops, but there’s real delight in hearing variations on a classic form.
One day a young woman faints outside Frank’s shop. She recovers quickly and darts away but not before inspiring a number of questions among Frank’s friends. She was wearing a green coat; is she a doctor? Her coat had no holes in it; is she a movie star? And what about that German accent?
Frank can barely hear them. He's smitten: Hallelujah!
The B side follows the pauses and swells of the improbable relationship between two people who had assumed they were done with love. Both Frank and his mystery woman harbor disappointments too agonizing to face, but if vinyl can make a comeback, so can they. “Real love was a journey with many pitfalls and complications,” Joyce writes. “. . . Sometimes the place you ended up was not the one you hoped for.”
If you’ve read Joyce’s best-selling debut novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” you already know her irresistible tone. There’s suffering here, too, and a searching journey, but this is a lighter book than “Harold Fry.” It’s a story that captures the sheer, transformative joy of romance — “a ballooning of happiness.” Joyce’s understated humor around these odd folks offers something like the pleasure of A.A. Milne for adults. She has a kind of sweetness that’s never saccharine, a kind of simplicity that’s never simplistic. Yes, the ending is wildly improbable and hilariously predictable, but I wouldn’t change a single note.
Rachel Joyce, if music be the food of love, write on!
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Rachel Joyce
Random House. 306 pp. $27