The Washington Post
American Musicby Jane Mendelsohn
At its center are Milo, a severely wounded veteran of the Iraq War confined to a rehabilitation hospital, and Honor, his physical therapist, a former dancer. When Honor touches/i>
From the author of I Was Amelia Earhart, a luminous love story that winds through several generations—told in Jane Mendelsohn’s distinctive mesmerizing style.
At its center are Milo, a severely wounded veteran of the Iraq War confined to a rehabilitation hospital, and Honor, his physical therapist, a former dancer. When Honor touches Milo’s destroyed back, mysterious images from the past appear to each of them, puzzling her and shaking him to the core.
As Milo’s treatment progresses, the images begin to weave together into an intricate, mysterious tapestry of stories. There are Joe and Pearl, a husband and wife in the 1930s whose marriage is tested by Pearl’s bewitching artistic cousin, Vivian. There is the heartrending story of a woman photographer in the 1960s and the shocking theft of her life’s work. The picaresque life of a woman who has a child too young and finds herself always on the move from job to job and man to man. And the story of a man and a woman in seventeenth-century Turkey—a eunuch and a sultan’s concubine—whose forbidden love is captured in music. The stories converge in a symphonic crescendo that reveals the far-flung origins of America’s endlessly romantic soul and exposes the source of Honor and Milo’s own love.
A beautiful mystery and a meditation on love—its power and its limitations—American Music is a brilliantly original novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Washington Post
“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
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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.
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.
Meet the Author
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
I perssonally think the author could do better. The introductory parragraph was god awful.
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.
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.
In 2005 twenty-one year old physical therapist Honor works at the Bronx VA hospital. Her current patient is Iraqi veteran Milo, having suffered a spinal column trauma. He is moody and uncooperative, but she goes about her job with professionalism. However, as she begins to touch parts of his body, the therapist and the patient begin seeing visions of people they never met. There is jazz saxophonist Joe, his wife Pearl and Vivian her cousin. Vivian shares Joe's love of music; while Pearl studies the law and they have an affair. The therapist and the patient meet others from the past like the late 1960s-1970s trio Iris, Alex, and Anna and early seventeenth century in Turkey Parvin, Kaya and Hyacinth. Honor and Milo struggle to connect dots as the visions become clearer with each new revelation. This is a fascinating well written metaphysical tale in which the diverse deliberately slow paced segues repeat several times with each new rendition adding depth to what Milo and Honor learn about the dance of forbidden love over the ages. Like the lead couple, readers will need to know what is going on in the different pasts and why this pair "see" these vivid dramas at this time. Harriet Klausner