The Song Is You

( 23 )

Overview

Each song on Julian’s iPod, “that greatest of all human inventions,” is a touchstone. There are songs for the girls from when he was single, there’s the one for the day he met his wife-to-be, there’s one for the day his son was born. But when Julian’s family falls apart, even music loses its hold on him.

    Until one snowy night in Brooklyn, when his life’s soundtrack—and life itself—start to play again. Julian stumbles into a bar and sees Cait O’Dwyer, a flame-haired Irish rock singer, performing...

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Overview

Each song on Julian’s iPod, “that greatest of all human inventions,” is a touchstone. There are songs for the girls from when he was single, there’s the one for the day he met his wife-to-be, there’s one for the day his son was born. But when Julian’s family falls apart, even music loses its hold on him.

    Until one snowy night in Brooklyn, when his life’s soundtrack—and life itself—start to play again. Julian stumbles into a bar and sees Cait O’Dwyer, a flame-haired Irish rock singer, performing with her band, and a strange and unlikely love affair is ignited. Over the next few months, Julian and Cait’s passion plays out, though they never meet. What follows is a heartbreaking dark comedy, the tenderest of love stories, and a perfectly observed tale of the way we live now.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of the best writers in America.”—Washington Post Book World

“Enthralling . . . brilliant . . . triumphant.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think, and for those of us who try to think and feel, The Song Is You captures the flip sides of life at middle age pretty much perfectly. Arthur Phillips is that rare thing among fiction writers, a wise guy who’s also wise.”—Kurt Andersen

“Impossible to put down.”—New York Times Book Review
 
“Daring . . . [an] incandescent new novel . . . richly human, filled with unexpected grace . . . A burning urgency animates the tale.”—Washington Post
 
“Phillips’s sparkling prose makes for a seriously fun read.”—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“This is the kind of novel you wait for, mostly in vain. Now that it has arrived, Phillips takes his place . . . with the likes of Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, and the late David Foster Wallace—twenty-first century authors, in short, who can simply blow you away with what’s happening on their pages.”—Buffalo News
 
“An ambitious story of love and obsession [that] showcases Phillips’s gift for plumbing the depths of grief and emotional fragility.”—USA Today
 
“Captivating . . . This book is itself a flowing, lyrical arrangement—the words almost begging to be read (or sung) aloud.”—Elle
 

Marie Arana
…incandescent…Phillips navigates an ostensibly arid present that turns out to be richly human, filled with unexpected grace, surprisingly connected by cellphones and instant messages. Along with these up-to-the-minute merits, a burning urgency animates the tale.
—The Washington Post
Kate Christensen
A less rigorous writer might have turned this story into a sentimental, overwritten swamp. But thanks to Phillips's thwarting of our (and his characters') expectations, and to his objective, amused intelligence about the deep ways music affects us, he dances like Fred Astaire over any alligators and mangrove roots lurking in turgid waters…the whole novel zings with fresh insight and inspired writing. The Song Is You is smaller, more focused and more character-driven than Phillips's earlier books, and it's not only a welcome new direction, but also a novel impossible to put down.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

A television commercial director strikes up a bizarre relationship with the object of his infatuation in Phillips's enthralling fourth novel. Behind his hipness and attitude, Julian Donahue is going through an emotional crisis that started when his two-year-old son died of a freak infection. His wife, Rachel, reacted by vigorously cheating on him; Julian, meanwhile, went impotent. But his potency returns one night in his Brooklyn apartment as he listens to a CD by rising Irish singer-starlet Cait O'Dwyer. As his interest in her music and career grows into a full-blown obsession, Julian meets washed-up rocker-turned-painter Alec Stamford (who harbors a few of his own bizarre yearnings), and Julian is propelled to do more than mill around in the back of crowds at Cait's performances. Phillips is in top form and does a brilliant job of transcribing the barrage of Julian's sensory data into cool and flexible prose. This is a triumphant return for Phillips to the level he achieved in his wonderful debut, Prague. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Jazz-reared Julian Donahue might love Music more than he loves People-and understandably so. People, like his dead infant son and ex-wife, tap deep and tangled emotions. Music, on the other hand, can be selected, the bad filtered out to build an ideal realm. It is in one of these worlds where our middle-aged ad man chances upon a performance by beautiful Irish twenty-something Cait O'Dwyer, a talented post-rock singer on the rise in New York's club circuit. What happens next is thankfully far from predictable: Julian does not have steamy, soul-redeeming sex with this younger woman-in fact, they never meet, instead carrying on an intellectual affair via the Internet and especially the iPod. In his fourth novel, Phillips attempts an antinovel wherein we are to be carried away by Music's power to disconnect us from and connect us to our most honest selves. This comes, unfortunately, at the expense of story and dramatic tension. Although Phillips writes with the precision and silkiness of Truman Capote, all we are left with is an Idea that begs to be animated somehow. Music nerds who also happen to read fiction will be his most sympathetic audience, yet the author's many fans will also be curious about this noble experiment. For larger fiction collections.
—Heather McCormack

Kirkus Reviews
A betrayed husband's fascination with a charismatic singer is given several intriguing twists in this subtle fourth novel from the versatile Phillips (Angelica, 2007, etc.). As he did in his widely praised debut novel Prague, Phillips focuses microscopic attention on the intellectual keenness and emotional vulnerability of each of his straying, struggling principal characters. Foremost are reluctantly aging director of TV commercials Julian Donahue, still sunk in grieving over his two-year-old son's death from a mysterious infection; Julian's estranged wife Rachel, whose own sorrows have steered her into promiscuity; and rising musical star Cait O'Dwyer, a bewitching Irish beauty who has become the darling of dimly lit jazz clubs and college campuses, and whose smoky sensuality brings back to Julian the vocal witchcraft practiced by Billie Holiday in her heyday. The simplicity of the tensions thus created is then skillfully complicated, as Phillips juxtaposes Julian's convoluted self-justifying fixation ("He could believe, with Cait in his life, that he could be free and tethered, young and old, joyful and mourning, forgiven") with a trenchant objective analysis of both his conflicted youth (among a loving and judgmental family) and his destroyed marriage. Whenever we expect it to suffocate in solipsism, this novel's scope instead widens. Intriguing parts are played by the footloose members of Cait's touring band, a sinister rock star turned painter (Alec Stamford) and Julian's older brother Aidan, an autodidact underachiever whose many failures are crowned by his embarrassing appearance on Jeopardy (from which, as it happens, author Phillips retired as an undefeated champion). Theproblem is Cait, whose ostensibly irresistible allure is never fully convincing; no more so, in fact, than is her reputation as a soulful songwriter-who, for example, rhymes "keep your distance . . . [with] don't leave a witness."Still, the novel's clashing harmonies seduce and fascinate. And Phillips still looks like the best American novelist to have emerged during the present decade.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812977912
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/23/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 982,907
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of Angelica, The Egyptologist, and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

It takes a lot of guts to call your first novel Prague. The name alone has become shorthand for a temporary fantasy world populated by overprivileged, post-collegiate Westerners trying to find themselves. It takes even more guts to call your first novel Prague and set it in Budapest.

Luckily for Arthur Phillips, the confidence is backed up by talent. His 2002 debut became a national bestseller that landed on several critics' year end "best of" lists, including Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times.

The seeds for Prague were planted in 1990, when Phillips graduated from Harvard and moved to Budapest. After the fall of Communism, Central Europe became the latest stopping point for would be bohemians looking to recreate the spirit of Paris in the ‘20s. Phillips spent the next two years working a variety of odd jobs, including stints as an executive assistant, an entrepreneur, a jazz musician, and a repo man.

While in Budapest, Phillips was struck by the radically different communities living together in the Hungarian capital. On one side were the expatriates: young, carefree, self-consciously aware of their role in history. On the other side were the natives: experienced, distant, routinely suspicious of the invading foreigners, yet smart enough to exploit the boon for their own benefit.

The gap between and necessary collision of the two worlds resonates throughout Prague. As Phillips writes on his website, "For some people I knew, the ear-popping pressure of so much history and self-consciousness made it hard to get up in the morning, to justify your lunch, let alone your existence. What does it mean to tell a girl you ache for her as the two of you stand in front of a building with bullet holes in it? What does it mean to fret about your fledgling and blatantly temporary career when the man next to you managed to get himself tortured by the secret police of two different regimes?"

In 1992, Phillips returned to the States to study music at Berklee in Boston. He graduated after a year and a half and started playing music professionally. Shortly thereafter, he got married. It did not take long for his wife to become "increasingly dubious about [his] abilities to make any money," so Phillips did what any man in his situation would do—he tried out for Jeopardy. Six months later, Phillips was on the show, earning enough money as a five-night champion to fund his next few years of exploits.

He began work on Prague in 1997. "I had been back in the States for about 5 years, and I felt so overwhelmingly nostalgic for that time and place, that I really was kind of a drag to be around," Phillips said in a 2002 interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "And my wife and others would ask me to stop talking about Hungary. And so I thought, well, maybe I could write about this time and then maybe I can work through some of my nostalgic issues."

It took Phillips four years to write the book and another six months to find an agent. Random House picked up the novel and published it to nearly universal acclaim. Janet Maslin praised it in The New York Times as "an ingenious debut novel." Other critics called Prague "devilishly clever" (Publishers Weekly), "hilarious and scathing" (Salon.com) and "astonishingly good" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Phillips, it seems, had finally found his niche.

Two years later, Phillips published his second novel, The Egyptologist. Phillips came up with the idea for the novel when asked by his sister to describe the writing process. To Phillips, writing is like, "an archaeological expedition. You think you're describing the main chamber, but then you discover another door and you go through it and find an even larger room, and what you thought was your goal turns out just to be a piece of a much larger structure you hadn't expected to find."

Phillips has gone on to write Angelica, The Song Is You, and The Tragedy of Arthur, all to critical acclaim.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 23, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harvard College, 1990
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Julian Donahue's generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen. When he was twenty-three and new to the city, he roamed the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, claimed it as his discovery, colonized it with his hours and his Walkman. He fell in love with Manhattan's skyline, like a first-time brothel guest falling for a seasoned professional. He mused over her reflections in the black East River at dusk, dawn, or darkest night, and each haloed light-in a tower or strung along the jeweled and sprawling spider legs of the Brooklyn Bridge's spans-hinted at some meaning, which could be understood only when made audible by music and encoded in lyrics. Play on, Walkman, on, rewind and give me excess of it.  

Late in the evening of the day he completed his first job directing a television commercial, Julian sat in the fall air and listened to Dean Villerman on his Walkman, stared at Manhattan, and inhaled as if he'd just surfaced from a deep dive, and he had the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that. "Love" was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they-the music, the light, the season-implied more than this, because, treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing. He felt his nerves open and turn to the world like sunflowers on the beat, but this desire could not achieve release; his body strained forward, but independent of any goal, though he did not know it for many years to come, until he proved it.  

Because years later, when he had captured all that-love, wife, home, success, child-still he longed, just the same, when he listened to those same songs, now on a portable CD player, easily repeated without the moodicidal interruption of rewinding (turning spindles wheezing as batteries failed). He felt it all again. He pressed Play and longed still.  

When he was first married, Julian worried how he would feel about particular songs if his marriage should expire prematurely, in Rachel's death or her infidelity (yes, he had imagined it before he knew it, perhaps imagined it so vividly that he caused it). And he prepared himself to lose music for Rachel, as the price of love, the ticket torn at admission: he assumed that, whether the marriage worked or not, he would never really find his way back to the music, that old songs would be sucked dry of promise or too clogged with memory.  

But no, music lasted longer than anything it inspired. After LPs, cassettes, and CDs, when matrimony was about to decay into its component elements-alimony and acrimony-the songs startled him and regained all their previous, pre-Rachel meanings, as if they had not only conjured her but then dismissed her, as if she had been entirely their illusion. He listened to the old songs again, years later on that same dark promenade, when every CD he had ever owned sat nestled in that greatest of all human inventions, the iPod, dialed up and yielding to his fingertip's tap. The songs now offered him, in exchange for all he had lost, the sensation that there was something still to long for, still, something still approaching, and all that had gone before was merely prologue to an unimaginably profound love yet to seize him. If there was any difference now, it was only that his hunger for music had become more urgent, less a daily pleasure than a daily craving.  

Julian Donahue married in optimistic confusion, separated in pessimistic confusion, and now was wandering toward a mistrustful divorcistan, a coolly celibate land. He understood little of what had transpired between the day he said he could not live without this woman and the day when the last of her belongings (and many of his) left their home. If he forced himself to recall, he would revisit particular arguments, understand they were scaffolded by interlocking causes and built upon the unstable ruins of previous arguments. He saw that old arguments had been only partially dismantled either to mutual satisfaction or to no one's, or to her satisfaction (perhaps feigned) and his relief, or to his satisfaction and her mounting resentment, to which he had been blind. Perhaps all of this swayed upon some swampland of preexisting incompatibility, despite mutual feelings of affection and lust all signatories probably felt back at the start. Obviously he would not downplay the role of Carlton, though it was wiser not to think about that, and he had become skilled at cutting off those fractal thoughts before they could blossom.  

The day Rachel announced her indistractible thirst for his absence, Julian was consulting his music collection, hunting for the song that would explain to him, even obliquely, the bleak atmosphere in his home, the two magnetized black boxes circling each other, attracting and repelling each other from room to room.  

"I want to play you something," he said, kneeling in front of his CD shelves when Rachel entered behind him. "I was thinking about Carlton, and..."  

He must have been present for something. He recognized his dumb urge never to think about her again even as he failed to stop thinking about her, perhaps because of the energy required to stop those other thoughts. Photography still in his apartment claimed there had been Eiffel Tower kisses and golden beach sunsets; he hadn't thrown those out yet. He had drawn her portrait a hundred times and shot eight-millimeter video of her and sometimes still watched it when he was home alone and in the mood to mope. When there were animal shows on cable, he would put on the CD of Summer Holiday and mute the TV, switching back and forth with the remote, hitting Video Input over and over: Rachel sleeps on her side, her hair fanned out behind her and her arms pushing in front of her, as if she were soaring through the sky; the polar bear rears back and with both fists double-punches straight down through the ice to reach the seal; Rachel bats a dream pest away from her face; the seal is consumed in eight bites;
"-I cover the waterfront..."  

Lately he watched the animals more and Rachel less and sometimes felt as if all human affairs-but especially his own-could be sufficiently explained by the wily, competing coyotes and babysitting, gnu-gnawing lionesses and fascistic ants. After he was separated from Rachel and returned to the wild, he watched animal channels for hours at a time because they helped him fall asleep. Later, when he was sandbagging the new structures of mind necessary to keep pain from splashing over all his daily activity, when he could consider those years and still go to work, the animals remained. When he was able to think about his past, to consider and not just feel his pain, to calculate how thoroughly Rachel had broken and discarded him, how comprehensively they had misimagined each other, the baboons and orcas offered a certain stabilizing hope for the years ahead, and soon everything seemed explicable by animal behavior. Aggressive Teamsters on a commercial set were expressing threatened alpha status; gallery openings served to tighten group bonds for the protection of like genes. One had to be less heartbroken, since our cousin primates died from emotional trauma or recovered from it quickly. Litters in the wild of almost every species included a certain number of unfeasible offspring, starved by the mother and siblings, or just eaten by them.  

Urges that had once driven Julian-to pursue and capture shampoo models, for example-were explained and defused by animal shows. That old behavior was just what countless cheetahs did, spreading seed. More and more of life dripped down beneath him, reduced by the immutable laws and relaxed habits of the animal kingdom. Entire species went extinct; ours would, too, someday, or evolve into something unrecognizable, a higher species that would pay no more attention to our obsessively cataloged feelings than we do to the despairs of Australopithecus, and all of this vain heartbreak that we cling to as important or tragic would one day be revealed-by TV scientists-for what it is: just behavior.  

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. As it turns out, neither Cait nor Julian has perfectly correct information about the other when they make their decisions. At each step of their relationship, do their actions (or inactions) make sense to you? 

2. Is Julian a stalker? A romantic? Is this a love story? 

3. What role does music play for the characters in The Song Is You? How and why does music “reopen” Julian’s world? Does it “pay him back”? What does the narrator mean by a “mutual possession”? 

4. What do Billie Holiday and the recording of “I Cover the Waterfront” symbolize for Julian’s father? For Julian? 

5. Alec’s gallery uses a cocktail napkin that reads: “following the act of love, all creatures grieve.” Rachel resents Julian’s “retreat from feeling,” his fading out to “present less and less of himself to hold on to.” How does Rachel grieve? What realizations do Julian and Rachel reach on their own? Together? How are grief and memory intertwined? 

6. “You have to reclaim yourself somehow, or you’ll walk forever like this: among the living but not one of them. Nobody will touch you.” How does this advice relate to Julian’s role as muse to Cait? Why does he consider being her muse “plenty, for now”? 

7. Describe the significance of how Julian and Rachel met with regard to what we know about their relationship and Julian’s eventual relationship with Cait. 

8. How does technology both promote and hinder connection in the novel? 

9. Discuss how aspects of music—art, talent, fame, nostalgia, feeling— can simultaneously inspire both self-love and self-loathing for characters in The Song Is You. How does the struggle for permanence relate? Courage? Longing? 

10. On the subject of singers, Julian suspects that “the only real ones, the pure ones, were the dead ones.” More broadly, how does this statement ring true in Julian’s life? Cait’s? Rachel’s? Do you agree? 

11. Discuss the significance of space and silence in The Song Is You: between characters, in songs, onstage, and even “the gap between the man and the music.” 

12. How and why does Julian reach the conclusion that Cait is the “necessary catalyst” to making Carlton “a present joy in his life” rather than a “semisweet torture from his past or a future stolen from him”? 

13. Explain the significance of the Japanese sleeper stories Julian’s father told him as a young boy in relation to the novel. Do you agree with Julian’s father’s conclusion that “love is not sufficient. It never has been”? Does Julian? How do Julian’s and Aidan’s reactions to their father’s stories reflect their differing relationships with him? 

14. Why does Aidan delete Cait’s voice mail from Julian’s answering machine? Do you agree that this is “best for everyone”? 

15. In Budapest, Julian insists that “a perfect solution, a perfect ending and a perfect beginning” existed. Why is a “factual soft focus” required in Julian’s “perfect” world? Given this, how do you interpret the end of the novel? Is it a “perfect ending”? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2010

    My Book Club overwhelmingly not impressed with this selection!

    Out of 7 people: 1 person loved it!; 4 people could not get through the book; 1 rushed to finish it for the discussion but did not like it; 1 person read it, felt ambivalent it--but liked it better after the discussion! I RARELY don't finish a book, but I found this book too verbose--quite pretentious--and the plot and characters very disjointed, though unique. Unfortunately, the whole experience in trying to get through the book and not succeeding left me with the recommendation: don't waste your time! Harsh, I know...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2009

    A rich reading experience, full of wry insight

    "The Song Is You" is more style than substance, and that's not a bad thing. The plot is less substantial than the multifaceted characters, who are both attractive and exasperating (pretty hard to pull off that combination; they're likable in spite of themselves); but it's the author's writing style that is the main reason to read this book. His playful and sophisticated use of language made me laugh out loud at several points, and he is able to just "nail" situations with an insightful wry humor. I work in the music industry and know many people who are just as passionate about music - and just as promiscuous in their listening - as the protagonist, so his character rang quite true for me. The plots twists and turns lead to a very satisfying, true-to-life, conclusion.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 20, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Summer Read!

    Great book, I really related to Julian and the love for his IPOD, but I felt there were some holes towards the end I would have liked explained.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2009

    Absolutely Superb

    This book is absolutely superb. If not, perhaps, for the story itself but for the way in which it is told. Mr. Phillips' use of music not just as a minor part of the story but a sort of character in its own right was a little startling for me. The way that he describes music and its role in the life of Julian spoke to me on a very personal level.

    Beautiful language, lovely ideas, wonderful voice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2009

    Unconsummated love in the time of middle age, grief and iPods!

    An interesting and refreshingly different read. The main character - Julian - is well defined and complicated. Other characters are only partially developed, but add to the depth of Julian.

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