Characters and music star in The Music Shop
Can there be a sadder sight than a man in his sixties sitting in a garden with tears dribbling down his cheeks?
But there I was on a gorgeous morning in June, sitting in a chair on the patio of my daughter’s house, blinking through a misty saline prism and leaking water like a broken spigot.
Had I received news of the death of a loved one? Had I just realized that I would never be wealthy? Had I stubbed my bare toes on the grandkids’ toy bin?
No. No. And no.
No, it was a damn book that brought the mist to my eyes and rain to my chin.
Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop (Random House, 2017, 307 pages) takes place in England and tells the story of Frank, an eccentric owner of a dingy record store, and Ilse Brauchmann, a young German woman who wanders into the shop and soon asks Frank to teach her what he knows about music. Surrounding these two figures are a collection of Frank’s eccentric friends and fellow store owners: Kit, Frank’s young assistant who has a penchant for breaking everything he touches; Father Anthony, a fallen priest who operates a nearby religious articles store; Maud, the scowling, bitter tattoo artist who secretly loves Frank; a pair of undertakers; Pete the barman; and Peg, Frank’s dead mother.
And then there is the music.
Through her knowledge, her skill, and some sheer act of magic, Rachel Joyce manages to make music a central character in The Music Shop. Frank, who doggedly insists on selling only vinyl records rather than CDs, has a remarkable ability to recommend just the right recording for a suffering or emotionally wounded customer. When one customer, for example, broken and aching from his wife’s cheating on their wedding day, requests Chopin, telling Frank he only listens to that composer, Frank points him to Aretha Franklin’s “Oh No Not My Baby.” The man resists, but finally enters the listening booth and is blown away by what he hears:
“There were strings, the bobble of the guitar, a horn riff, percussion, all telling her she was wrong — (‘Wohhh!’ shrilled the backing vocals, like a Greek chorus of girlfriends) — but no, she hung on tight. Her voice pulled the words this way and that, soaring up over the top and then scooping right down low. Aretha knew. She knew how desperate it felt, to love a cheat. How lonely.
He sat very, very still. And he listened.”
From beginning to end of this wonderful story, Rachel Joyce sings to us through her prose about music and its power in our lives. Here is everything from Gregorian chant to punk rock; here are conductors and composers like Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz, and Vivaldi, performers and song writers like the Beatles, Billie Holiday, and James Brown. Several times, I put The Music Shop aside just to go on YouTube and listen to some of the pieces, including a full performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which we all know but rarely hear. (A note at the end of the novel points out that the music is collected on Spotify, but I was unable to locate it. Search instead on Spotify “The Music Shop Rachel Joyce.” You can find a similar list on YouTube.)
Of course, The Music Shop is more than just a course in musicology or an incitement to listen to compositions and songs with greater attention. There is the off-beat, funny, and sweet relationship between the mysterious Ilse, who only reveals her past through hints and innuendo, and the shy Frank, a man who can help everyone but himself. There are the struggles of the shop owners of Unity Street to keep their leaky, disintegrating stores in business. There is the relationship, told in flashbacks, between Frank and his mother Peg, a woman who taught him much about music and little about love.
Mostly, though, The Music Shop is a story of wrong turns and second chances. To give details would spoil the story and the effect of the ending; suffice it to say that all the characters associated with Frank’s music shop undergo various transformations. In particular, Ilse and Frank show us that the path of love can be fraught with dangers and the thorns of despair and miscommunication.
This last observation fails to address Rachel Joyce’s sharp sense of humor. She has a sly way of slipping in bits that can bring a smile, as when Kit becomes stuck in a window trying to keep the rain from blowing inside. When Maud, who has loved Frank for some years, realizes that Frank and Ilse are drawn to each other, she plots against her rival and thinks “there was no way a kraut in a coat was going to cock it up.”
Given these amusements, you may be thinking: So why the tears?
Well, I wish I could say allergies or a gnat in the eye were the culprits, but the ending of The Music Shop just hit me like a wave. It’s an ending about love — not just romantic love, but about the love of friends for one another. It’s also, as I said above, about mistakes and good intentions gone horribly awry, and second chances in life.
It’s a story about hope.
My tears surprised me — I am not given to crying over books — but hope and second chances have been much on my mind lately.
Put the tears down to that.
Or to a beautiful book.