The Music Shop has Rachel Joyce’s signature charm: Frank, a “gentle bear of a man,” owns a music shop on a street of independent shops trying to stay in business against developers who want to buy them out. The year is 1988 and CDs are coming into fashion, yet Frank steadfastly refuses to sell anything but vinyl. Vinyl, Frank argues, is far superior to the “clean” sounds CDs make:
What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish? … We are human beings. 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. 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. [p. 53]
Moreover, Frank has a special talent: he has a knack for finding the specific piece of music each customer needs, even if it’s not the music they want. In an early chapter, a customer enters his shop saying he loves only Chopin; Frank looks deep into his eyes, notices heartbreak, and prescribes Aretha Franklin. While initially dubious, the customer ends up leaving with tears in his eyes and an Aretha record clutched to his chest. He’s basically the fantasy shopkeeper for anyone who loves supporting independent businesses, and I love that he’s based on a real person — in her foreword, Rachel Joyce says the book was partially inspired by an encounter her husband had at a music shop, where the shopkeeper recommended the perfect record to help cure his insomnia.
Frank’s world gets jolted when a beautiful German woman with gloved hands and a pea green coat faints in front of his shop. Ilse Brauchmann catches Frank’s eye not just because of her beauty, but also because when he looks at her, he hears only silence. She confesses she doesn’t really like music, and hires him to give her music classes — essentially teach her his love for music. Both have more in their pasts than they let on, and deep-seated wounds that need to heal.
Fans of Rachel Joyce’s Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy will find the same whimsical charm and idyllic world building in Music Shop. From the earliest chapters, we can pretty much guess where this story is going, and happily settle in for a lovely ride. Music lovers, and particularly fans of classical music, will absolutely find a kindred spirit in Frank’s love for the genre and his unerring belief in its power. Music Shop is a book for believers; Frank and Ilse’s story invites us to suspend cynicism and believe in the power of music with them. The story is set in 1988 London, but Joyce’s language gives it a timeless, anyplace feel, such that it’s the development that shuts down the shops on Frank’s street and the CDs that edge out Frank’s sales that feel anachronistic, even though our logical minds tell us otherwise.
Unfortunately, Joyce goes a bit too far later in the book, where the story picks up after a 20-year hiatus from the characters. Suddenly, the charm no longer feels easy, and what we learn about Frank veers dangerously close to melodrama. The climactic scene at a mall food court was the final straw for me — it was cheesy and schmaltzy, and I say this as a full-on fan of Hallmark holiday movies and Nicholas Sparks tear jerkers. I won’t give any spoilers about what actually happens, and part of me wonders if the scene played out on-screen may bring me to tears, but on the page, it just made me cringe. Far from the easy charm and rousing emotion of most of the story until then, this scene played false, a resolution that should’ve fit but instead felt unearned. I almost wanted the story to have ended 20 years ago.
The final chapter returns to the whimsy of the beginning, and eases us back into the world Joyce had painstakingly created. I only wish the section before hadn’t been so discordant.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.