I’ve never read anything by Rachel Joyce before, but I was hoping this book would be an easy breezy summer read, just as its cover seemed to promise. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those books that are neither terrible enough to drop, nor engaging enough to really stick with. Instead of days, I spent a few weeks reluctantly picking it up, hoping that maybe it would get better (not really). As a lover of music, I really dug the premise, but this is no High Fidelity.
It’s 1988 and CD just began to phase out vinyl, to the dismay of Frank, an old-school record-shop owner with a rare gift for musical therapy. Frank has a knack of matching a customer with the music they need to soothe their woes, but while he helps other people to move on, Frank himself is a lonely soul with emotional scars and prefers to stay in the safe unchanging harbour of his shop on Unity Street, in the company of his fellow eccentric misfit shopkeepers. Love, for Frank, is something that happens to other people.
But trouble is brewing; because Frank staunchly refuses to stock CDs in place of his beloved vinyl, his distributors threaten to drop him, and Unity Street is under threat when a local development company wants to demolish the shops and waves tempting offers in front of Frank’s friends. On a personal front, Frank’s life is disrupted by Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious German woman in a green coat who faints outside his shop. Frank is an instant smitten kitten, but Ilse’s reticence and his own hang-ups don’t make the course of love easy. The drama in the present is interspersed with flashbacks of Frank’s childhood and his memories of Peg, his bohemian mother who taught him everything he knows about music but never gave Frank what he really craved, a normal loving parent.
Sadly, after a charming and promising opening, the story of Frank, Ilse and the motley crew of Unity Street is dragged out unnecessarily for about 250 meandering pages, with not much happening outside of the usual tiresome romantic tropes of miscommunication and Ilse remaining an enigma for so long I simply lost all interest in the character. While I appreciated the book’s obvious passion for the music and its healing power, and Joyce sprinkling the story with trivia about songwriters and composers ranging from Beethoven to Sex Pistols, I found the writing style too precious and saccharine too often.
Very late in the book, the story undergoes a sudden shift in style and perspective that, for a while, perked me up and made me eager to find out how it all ends… in a big vat of sticky sentimental goo, as it turned out. Honestly, I don’t think I’m averse to some fluffy quirky reading, but this book did absolutely nothing for me.