Books Book Reviews

'The Music Shop' celebrates the resilience of ordinary people and the healing power of music

'The Music Shop' is less melancholy than Rachel Joyce’s 2012 debut 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,' but still tends to a minor key.

The Music Shop By Rachel Joyce Random House 320 pp.
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Lots of guys claim to be great listeners. Frank really is.

Given a few minutes and a few details, the record store owner will come up with the exact song a person needs to hear. Frank’s ear is legendary, and his gift for music therapy almost preternatural.

For a man “who only likes Chopin” and just got his heart broken, he prescribes Aretha Franklin. For the tattoo artist who owns the shop next door, Barber's “Adagio for Strings.” Frank chases down a shoplifter who steals Genesis’s “Invisible Touch,” tackles the young man, and says he won’t call the police if he will come back and listen to Mendelssohn. (He can even keep the album, although his choice just breaks Frank’s heart.)

The Music Shop is just as run down and full of eclectic lonely souls as any fan of “High Fidelity” or “The Commitments” could wish. It’s 1988, and business is slower than usual for the shabby shops of Unity Street. A development company is offering a buyout, but Frank smells a rat and urges the community to hold on to their quirky, neighborly way of life.

Rachel Joyce’s first novel was 2012’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” in which a British retiree decides to deliver a letter to a dying friend in the north of the country by foot. “The Music Shop” is less melancholy, but still tends to a minor key. Like that novel, it revels in resilience of ordinary people, and empathy and loyalty are prized above more material considerations.

Frank, who has banned CDs from his store, has two listening booths made from gigantic Victorian wardrobes and a Persian runner dividing the cardboard boxes of albums classified by feel rather than by alphabet. For example, Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” are shelved with the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.” “Same thing, different time,” Frank says.)

The only music he cannot listen to is the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah, which his mother wanted played at her funeral. And while he has boundless patience with other people’s pain, he keeps his own hidden well away, Joyce writes. “Frank might have cut a lonely figure but this did not make him unusual on Unity Street, where many people had once been alone.”

If CDs are dismissed as antiseptic “toys,” one can only imagine what Frank would have made of the digital era. “We need lovely things we can see and hold. Yes, vinyl can be a pain. It’s not convenient. It gets scratched. But that’s the point,” he tell a music rep. “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.”

Then one day, a young woman in a green coat faints outside the store and Frank hears only silence. After she comes to, Ilse hires Frank to give her weekly lessons. As they cover everything from plainsong to punk, music appreciation classes take on new meaning. “Music is about silence… the silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end,” Frank’s mother once told him. “Because if you listen, the world changes. It’s like falling in love. Only no one gets hurt.”

Everyone from the tattoo artist (who has Frank’s name inked above her heart) to the former priest Frank saved from alcoholism with jazz is pretty sure they know what’s going on. And everyone (except the tattoo artist) is almost as smitten with Ilse as Frank. The story is unabashedly heartwarming, and Joyce is skilled enough to avoid is false notes.

As is traditional with romantic compositions, there’s a grand gesture. This ones manages to be both period accurate and over the top. It’s absolutely predictable, but left even a jaded critic with a goofy smile on her face.

“The Music Shop” is one sentimental journey that will set a reader’s heart at ease.

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