American Music

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The celebrated author of I Was Amelia Earhart brings us a brilliant, kaleidoscopic story of human connection that soars with imagination, spirit, and Mendelsohn’s distinctive mesmerizing style.

Honor is a physical therapist with a mysterious patient in Milo, the Iraq war veteran whose destroyed back is the only testament to his emotional scars. When Honor touches him, she and Milo are overwhelmed by startling visions of the past: Of 1930s New York, where a young marriage is ...

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American Music

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The celebrated author of I Was Amelia Earhart brings us a brilliant, kaleidoscopic story of human connection that soars with imagination, spirit, and Mendelsohn’s distinctive mesmerizing style.

Honor is a physical therapist with a mysterious patient in Milo, the Iraq war veteran whose destroyed back is the only testament to his emotional scars. When Honor touches him, she and Milo are overwhelmed by startling visions of the past: Of 1930s New York, where a young marriage is tested by the arrival of an intriguing cousin; of a female photographer whose life's work is irrevocably stolen; of a young mother determined to make it on her own; and of 17th-century Turkey, where the forbidden love affair of a eunuch and the sultan’s concubine threatens a tragic end. As the stories converge in a crescendo of revelations, they bring Honor and Milo closer to healing and understanding. A breathtaking mystery and meditation on love, American Music is a compassionate and wondrous novel.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Redefines the genre. . . . Exacting, moving, devastating. American Music is a story told in . . . dazzling images.” —The New York Times Book Review

 “Unpretentious, moving, intelligent, and fresh. . . . Like Count Basie and His Orchestra, this book swings.” —Elle 

 “What a captivating storyteller Mendelsohn can be. . . . A romantic story of romantic stories, full of love and longing.” —The Washington Post
“Glorious. . . . An aleph of a novel—a keyhole one looks into and cannot pull away from.” —Los Angeles Times 

 “Luminous. . . . Intricately plotted and affectingly written. . . . A piercing, magical revelation about the capricious power of disclosed truths to lift us up or take us down.” —The Boston Globe 

 “If the artist Edward Hopper had been a writer, he might have dreamed up something like the New York-y 1930s sections of Jane Mendelsohn’s American Music, a beautiful bittersweet novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine 

 “Intriguing. . . . Haunting. . . . Dip[s] boldly into the waters of magical realism. . . . Even though life often plays in a minor key, it can be perfect sometimes anyway.” —The Miami Herald 

 “In her exquisite, psychologically fluent novels, the actual and imagined merge as Mendelsohn tests the power of stories to define, guide, and sometimes destroy us. Her third novel is an intricate puzzle of haunting, far-reaching, secretly connected love stories…. Sensuously rendered.” —Booklist (starred review) 

 “Beautifully rendered. . . . [Joe, Pearl, and Vivian’s] story is a heartbreaker, stark in its reality. . . . Powerful. . . . Hard to forget.” —Providence Journal  

 “Invites the kind of reading we don’t often allow ourselves anymore—that accomplished in one sitting…. Mendelsohn allows each of these stories to arrive at what feels like its natural end, like cymbals allowed to tremble until they gradually come to rest.” —Slate 

 “Haunting, mystical and beautiful, American Music is written in a uniquely creative style that poignantly and powerfully touches the reader contemplating the gift of music in an American period of history yearning for recovery and renewal.” —Historical Novels Review

“As in her earlier novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn proves a master of historical context: American history itself is as much a character as those who live and die through it.”  —The Charleston Post & Courier

“Jane Mendelsohn as produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year. . . . Brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.” —Sacramento Book Review

Ron Charles
What's clear…is what a captivating storyteller Mendelsohn can be, and ultimately American Music is a novel about the power of stories. She's remarkably good at setting scenes quickly and evocatively, raising up characters we care about immediately and drawing us into their conflicts…she's willing to break our usual three dimensions and let something miraculous slide along the margins: a winged man, a porous wall, a body like a haunted house. If her affection for rich, epigraphic lines sometimes tempts her to sound pretentious, more often she writes the kind of lovely, wise phrases that will have you underlining passages.
—The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
History repeats itself with a vengeance when the tentative relationship between a wounded Iraq War veteran and his physical therapist releases a torrent of memories, dreams and alternate lives. Flown to the Bronx VA hospital after suffering a paralyzing spinal-cord injury, Milo Hatch won't lie on his back and doesn't much like to talk. But like it or not, he speaks in wondrous other ways to Honor, the young therapist who's been assigned to his case. When she touches different parts of his body, she can see the story of Joe, the sax player who left his wife Pearl for her cousin Vivian back in the 1930s; of Iris Michaels, the pregnant wife of an Army medical officer court-martialed ostensibly for his goatee and insubordination, but really for his complaints about inadequate supplies in the Vietnam War; and of Parvin, the young dancer captured for Sultan Murad IV's harem in 1623, who captures in turn the love of two very different members of the sultan's court. What do these different stories have to do with each other? By the time she's reached the end of this luminous fable, Mendelsohn (Innocence, 2000, etc.) will have fulfilled the promise of her many repeated motifs-names like Avedis and Anna, elements like green eyes, cymbals, dancing and angels, people like Count Basie, places like Egypt-to link them in relatively orthodox ways in something like the family history of an extended spiritual family. Even after she's pulled the threads together, however, it seems fairer and more resonant to regard Milo's body as a radio receiver, photo album or, as Honor says, "a haunted house" that lives by giving voice to these tales. A magically consoling reminder that beneath the starkest case ofwounding and healing is the music of love lost and found.
Publishers Weekly
This digressive novel by the author of I Was Amelia Earhart probes intersecting tales that emerge from the work done by a masseuse-cum-shaman. Honor is a 21-year-old physical therapist at the Bronx VA hospital; Milo Hatch is a particularly traumatized patient who was severely wounded in Iraq. During Milo's treatment, both he and Honor begin having visions of people they don't know. The narrative breaks up in pursuit of the stories behind the visions of the late 1930s love triangle between Joe, a saxophone player and law student; his wife, Pearl, unable to have children after many miscarriages; and Pearl's cousin, Vivian, who shares with Joe a passion for jazz. (Mendelsohn provides, for instance, a tidy excursus on the significance of cymbals in jazz, tracing their provenance to 17th-century Istanbul.) The fallout from Joe and Vivian's messy affair connects back to present day, yet the music evoked by this ponderously embellished work remains a vague, distant noise. (June)
Library Journal
This love story by Mendelsohn (I Was Amelia Earhart) centers on two characters: physical therapist Honor and her patient Milo, an injured Iraq war veteran. When Honor touches Milo's skin, vivid images from the past are revealed to them both. These do not appear to be images of either of their pasts, yet Milo and Honor are both captivated by the ever-developing stories of Joe, Pearl, and Vivian in the mid-1930s; Iris, Alex, and Anna in the early 1970s; and Parvin and Hyacinth in 17th-century Turkey. Although they don't understand the source of the stories and sometimes experience physical pain during the process, Honor and Milo are compelled to continue this "therapy"; they want to find out how the stories end. The stories are told in a vague and mysterious way, with more and more detail added as connections are finally drawn among them to explain all. VERDICT Like Honor and Milo, the reader is eager to find out what happens and how these seemingly unrelated stories connect. This intriguing book will be particularly appealing to readers with vivid imaginations who are open to a more innovative narrative style.—Sarah Conrad Weisman, Corning Community Coll. Lib., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307473974
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/14/2011
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,516,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.08 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane Mendelsohn
Jane Mendelsohn is a graduate of Yale University. She is the author of two previous novels, including the New York Times best seller I Was Amelia Earhart. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
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Read an Excerpt



She stands up in the subway car where she has been sitting and looks out into the darkness. Her stop is coming and she likes the moment before the light breaks through the window. There is her reflection in the glass, a ghost with a shifting skeleton and a visible heartbeat as the columns and dim lights that make up the architecture of this underworld scroll through her body rapid-fire in the blackness. Then she disappears into the light. She turns toward the doors. She adjusts the strap of the bag slung across her chest and quickly steps onto the platform.

It is raining softly when she emerges onto the street. From a distance, she appears to be marching, silently, through the mist. With her steady gaze and long coat, her faded satchel and heavy boots, she looks both present and ancient. She looks like some beautiful soldier arrived from history.

She walks several blocks along empty gray streets toward a large white undistinguished building. In the lobby of the building she shows an identification card and rides up in the elevator. She steps off and walks down a hall. A door is open for her. Inside, a man is lying chest down on a table, a thin white sheet covering his body. His hand lifts slightly when she enters.

You’re here, she says.

I’m here, he says.

That’s something, she says.

It is.

Every week she pulls down the sheet and studies his back. She washes her hands and oils them and then rubs the oil onto the skin. His hands clench when she starts to work. He seems to be experiencing something more than pain. As she touches him there is transmitted to her bones his fierce desire to remain separate. He is determined not to reveal his secrets. She has visited him for weeks and she knows his back by now, the flat plane between the shoulder blades, the slope down to the sacrum. But she knows only his back, his neck, his arms, his legs. He will only lie on his front. He will never lie on his back, never let her work on his chest or face. He will not tell her why. She knows only that he has seen more than he can share, and she was told during the interview that she would have to respect his privacy. These men are suffering, the nurse had cautioned her. These men are haunted.

Still, there were stories in his body that she searched for like a detective. She had begun to feel as though she could read him, as if she could interpret the meaning in his knots and sinews. Sometimes, and this was not the first time she had questioned her sanity, she received visions from his limbs, his muscles, his bones. The first time it had happened she was touching his ankle when there arose in her mind the image of a woman standing underwater in a shaft of light, her dark hair wafting weightlessly like ink. Then her hand reached his neck and she saw more people. At first, they appeared to be moving to music, glittering couples swaying on a dance floor. But then in a shift of perspective she saw hundreds of bodies, each alone, swaying upright underwater. An underwater graveyard with thousands of unseeing eyes staring directly at her.

Suddenly, she felt sick. The light changed outside, the sky grew darker, and in the small dim room the body on the table seemed to break beneath her touch. Then from inside that, as if it were a hollowed-out broken sculpture, came pouring waves of water. She placed her hands on the man’s back until she could not see the swaying bodies any longer. She took a breath. For the moment, there were no more visions. She was safe. Yet within him, she knew, were only more stories. For a soldier’s body is a work of art that contains his country’s history.

You were saying something in your sleep, she said.

No, he said.

Yes, you were trying to tell me something.

He whispered something inaudible, then nothing. She had her hand on his arm and in a sudden flash she saw a pair of cymbals made of burnished beaten metal. She thought she could hear the reverberations of their clanging, as if from a great distance. Then she looked down at his face and saw the rapid uncontrollable movement of his eyelids. He was sleeping, but he was not at peace.

He began to speak again. This time it was clear and she could make out most of the words. He described an elaborate ballroom and dancing with his hand pressed firmly against a woman’s back. He talked about someone who disappeared. “For years I looked for her in the jungle, in the desert. I saw her face on the body of a tiger.” He opened his eyes but he was still sleeping. She looked into those eyes and they were shining, metallic. What was he trying to tell her?

We died that night at Roseland.

He said they fell in love because of the music. Count Basie was making his New York debut on Christmas Eve at the Roseland Ballroom. The Count and the reflections of the Count on the instruments swayed slightly when he lifted his arm. He turned in time to the beat and his image danced along the line of brass, so that although he was gracefully and confidently conducting his orchestra he appeared to be imprisoned inside the music. He took a seat at the piano. He nodded his head. The music swung. The bodies on the dance floor moved like thoughts in one consciousness, bubbles in a glass of champagne.

He said he put his hand on a woman’s back. He pulled her close. When they danced they danced slow and that’s when he knew that the music would kill them both.

On the dance floor there were hundreds of us, swaying upright like moving tombstones.

Is this a dream? she asked.

No, he said.

When did it happen?


From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of American Music, the mesmerizing new novel by Jane Mendelsohn, best-selling author of I Was Amelia Earhart.

1. American Music is preceded by two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare: “O boys, this story / The world may read in me: my body’s mark’d / With Roman swords”; and one from Billie Holiday: “If you expect happy days, look out.” In what ways do these quotes introduce major themes of the novel? Why would Mendelsohn choose such disparate figures as Shakespeare and Billie Holiday?

2. Why has Mendelsohn chosen American Music for her title? In what ways is music important in the novel?

3. Milo at first resists Honor’s attempts to help him. What is the turning point that allows him to open up to her?

4. American Music is centered around the idea that stories reside in the body and can be released through touch. Is this simply a metaphor, or does it represent a process that can happen outside the pages of a novel?

5. In what ways are Milo and Honor like readers within the novel? Why do they feel driven to understand the stories that are emerging from Milo?

6. When a taciturn Vivian is being interviewed before her show at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the museum’s benefactors says: “I can see why you never married. You don’t want to reveal anything” (p. 63). What parts of her life does Vivian want to keep secret? In what ways is American Music as a whole about the process of keeping and revealing secrets? What are the novel’s most surprising revelations?

7. Why does Iris steal Vivian’s photographs? Is she justified in doing so?

8. What effects does Mendelsohn achieve by layering her novel with the stories of so many characters from such different time periods?

9. Late in the novel, when Honor kisses Milo, “she felt a peace in not having to imagine anymore. Trouble starts, she thought, when we take the symbol for reality. . . . She didn’t have to do that anymore. . . ” (p. 211). Why would Honor feel peace at “not having to imagine anymore”? In what ways has she taken the symbol for the reality?

10. Mendelsohn's prose style might be described as lyrical or impressionistic. What are the most distinctive features of her writing? How does it differ from more straightforwardly realistic narrative prose?

11. Is American Music primarily a love story? How are the love relationships between Joe and Vivian, Hyacinth and Parvin, and Milo and Honor connected?

12. What does American Music reveal about the trauma of war? How has Milo been affected by nearly being killed in Iraq and by being pinned under the body of a dead fellow soldier?

13. Honor tells Milo: “Your body is like a haunted house. . . . And it seems as though I live there” (p. 185). In what ways is this true?

14. American Music is a novel of many disparate threads—different time frames, different characters and relationships, different generations in the same family. How does Mendelsohn bring these together at the end? What larger connections exist between all the stories in the novel?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit:

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 13 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 8, 2010

    American Music by Jane Mendelsohn

    American Music by Jane Mendelsohn is a must read, a page turner and a brilliant piece of writing.

    It is basically a family saga. It's construction is novel. It is not chronological. The reader is given indivdual pieces of information which must be rearranged to make a continuous narrative. It is a lively and absorbing exercise and keeps the reader interested and absorbed.

    The major theme is the love and anguish that mothers and daughters experience in their ambivalent relationships. There are powerful emotions expressed and described in beautiful prose with a lyrical and poetical quality.

    Behind the saga is the ever present background music of jazz. Thus, the title, American Music.

    Let the reader be alerted: There will be tears. Lots of them.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2013


    I perssonally think the author could do better. The introductory parragraph was god awful.

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  • Posted September 1, 2010

    I was mostly disappointed by American Music.

    American Music starts with Milo, a soldier wounded and deeply traumatized during the war in Iraq. Honor is assigned to him as a physical therapist, but when she touches him both she and Milo experience strong visions of people neither of them knows. The visions are about a bewildering array of people - a saxophone player who is cheating on his wife, a female photographer, and a sultan's concubine to name a few. In the end, of course, all the stories intersect with the stories of Milo and Honor.

    I was mostly disappointed by American Music. Despite the title I didn't feel much music in the story. All the jumping around to different people and stories was jarring and I had a hard time keeping track of everyone. I wish that the relationship between Milo and Honor had been more deeply developed. For as much time as the book spends on them I just wasn't convinced about their connection or their seemingly easy acceptance of this strange phenomenon.

    Carrington MacDuffie narrates the audio version American Music to which I listened. I normally like her ability to distinguish between the characters in a book, but in this one they all sounded too similar.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Touching is seeing; music is love

    The basic plot line of this book is not straight with an occasional curve, Instead "Time" in Mendelsohn's "American Music" is fluid and folds back on itself like a complex origami until the end when all the interconnected stories form a straightforward,integrated whole and the diverse layers unfold to form a beautiful flower. The first part of the book lays down roots for the remaining revelations that seem to come to the surface without any apparent order,like dreams,emerging from various decades of the 7th,20th and 21st centuries. These revelations are unleashed through the immaginative power of a touch that has absorbed history. Honor's hands magically release the tension from Milo's body as they reveal a series of unidentified memories and vignettes of past lives. Scenes are recreated in what appears to be a post-war tale of healing that takes place in the year 2005. While it is not always easy to maintain connections between the future and the past,each storytelling scene recounted by the omniscent voice of the novelist,reveals a sliver of time that has unknown ramifications until all the stories finally come together. The ireality of presentness and presence given to each episode is realized when Honor's hands set off reverberations in a shock of contact with Milo's vulnerable body. Honor's past remains hidden deep within her but eventually it collides with the sensations it produces in Milo. In his body, Honor's memories overcome the passions that block his rehabilitation. A fuller picture of both Milo and Honor takes shape over book-time and only over time do the relationships among each of the family groups to each other make sense. Only a few hardy persons can survive these family romances and the love that was or wasn't passed on to future generations. Read it. You won't be disappointed.

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