Perfect Timing for Easter – The Music Shop

When I finished reading Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop on Good Friday, I wanted to hear Handel’s Messiah.   With the same quirky style as The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce delivers a love story with hidden notes of redemption and a nod to the healing power of music.

Spanning twenty years, the story revolves around Frank, who owns a music shop in England which stocks only vinyl records, and Ilse, a concert violinist who can no longer play.  In his review for The Washington Post, Ron Charles says:

“If you’ve read Joyce’s best-selling debut novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,”you already know her irresistible tone. There’s suffering here, too, and a searching journey, but this is a lighter book than “Harold Fry.” It’s a story that captures the sheer, transformative joy of romance — “a ballooning of happiness.” Joyce’s understated humor around these odd folks offers something like the pleasure of A.A. Milne for adults. She has a kind of sweetness that’s never saccharine, a kind of simplicity that’s never simplistic. Yes, the ending is wildly improbable and hilariously predictable, but I wouldn’t change a single note.”

I made notes for listening – click here to see my playlists.

Related Review:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Despite new books on my new iPad and old books on my iPhone, the bookstore at Gatwick Airport was too good to resist. Of course I bought a book – “Perfect” by Rachel Joyce, the author of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” Using the premise that an unforeseen event can change life in an instant, Joyce builds a story around two seconds added to the clock in the 1972 leap year to regulate the time.

The story alternates between the friendship of two eleven year old boys, Byron and James, and the adult life of one of them, who is struggling to survive after years in a mental institution. The two seconds added to the world clock provide the catalyst for the incident that changes lives.

When Byron’s mother, the beautiful and “perfect” Diana, takes a short cut through a poor neighborhood in her Jaguar, a young girl on a bicycle rides out onto the road and she hits the girl. Only Byron witnesses the accident, and Diana drives on and continues her life as though nothing has happened.

The plot follows the changes in lives when Diana realizes, a month later and with Byron’s help, that she has been a hit-and-run driver, and must make amends to the poor girl. Beverly, the girl’s mother, sees Diana’s guilt as an opportunity to improve her own life and becomes Diana’s new best friend, using Diana’s fear of her husband, a weekend commuter to their Georgian estate in the country, to attain a better life for herself.

The two boys suspect that Jennie was not really hurt and create elaborate schemes to prove fraud.
James initiates Operation Perfect to protect Diana, whom he idolizes, and to find out what really happened. The boys are sure that it was during the extra two seconds of 1972 that this strange accident took place. Eventually, the story escalates to another accident that changes the boys’ lives forever.

As the story of Diana, with her mysterious background, sad marriage, and yearning to please continues, Joyce inserts alternate chapters about the life of one of the boys as an adult now in his fifties, who lives in a van and stutters through OCD rituals to keep his sanity. The suspense of why and how his life deteriorated to this sad existence keeps the reader waiting for the big reveal. When it comes, with a reunion of the two friends as adults, the revelation is a surprise.

With the flavor of the English countryside and a peek into the lives of the “ladies who lunch,” Joyce’s story has all the elements of astute observation and gentle humor as Harold Fry. Once again, her agenda goes beyond the mystery and drama of the story, and introduces a main character who will stay with you after the story ends. Everything ties together neatly and the importance of the extra two seconds is carefully withheld until the novel’s end, leaving you to wonder if it was all destined to happen.

Related Review:The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


Talk Amongst Yourselves

chat_icon_clip_art_7491 When asked to recommend books for discussion in a small group of “intelligent and fun ladies,” I scrolled through my reviews to find fare for a local book club.

I found:

  1. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  2. Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
  3. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed
  4. Kent Haruf’s Benediction
  5. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life
  6. Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot
  7. Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early
  8. B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger
  9. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
  10. Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
  11. Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Some I will probably reread whether or not anyone wants to discuss them.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold is the Englishman who writes a letter, heads out to post it, and then decides instead to walk the 500 miles to deliver it in person in Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  In a moving unravelling of emotions – regrets, forgiveness, guilt, understanding, love – Joyce delivers a subtle but powerful story of one man’s search for redemption that made the long list for the Man Booker Prize.

When Harold Fry receives a farewell letter from a dying co-worker whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, his intention to mail her a get-well note is sidelined by a young waitress he meets on his way to the mailbox.  With faith that his friend will stay alive until he reaches her at the hospice, Harold begins his journey in his trainers (sneakers), with only his debit card in his pocket and leaving behind his cell phone.  At first, Harold’s walking seems a selfless tribute to his old friend, but his task is ill-conceived as his shoes fall apart and his feet blister.  As he meets assorted characters along the way, he reminisces about his wife, his son, and his job, and clearly, his journey is more personal than a kindness to a dying woman.

Slowly, Joyce reveals the real reason behind Harold’s pilgrimage through conversations with characters he meets along the way – a swath of humanity that is both giving and taking, generous and ruthless.  At one point, the image of Forrest Gump jogging across the country, with mindless followers straggling behind him, came to mind; Harold Fry has a following for a while as well in his fifteen minutes of fame.  Like Calvin Trillin’s character Tepper, Harold also provokes confidences from the people who meet him by chance, and like the children’s book character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harold Fry seems to be drawing his reality as he goes.  They all congeal into a sad, older man who is looking back on his life – hoping it’s not too late to make it better.

Maureen, the wife left behind, has the expected initial reaction when Harold calls her from a phone booth to tell her of his adventure, but her emotions and her life changes as Harold continues to walk.  She moves from trying to have a doctor declare her husband insane, to missing him and wanting him home again – regretting the years of coldness and miscommunication.

Joyce cleverly conceals the real reason for the estrangement, and its revelation shifts the story’s theme.  The clues are so subtle, I found myself rereading sentences – sure that I had missed something, but the surprise motive does not appear until the book has almost ended.

Joyce conveniently provides a map of England with Harold Fry’s trail, and you will want to flip to it as he marks the way from the southern tip, up through Cornwall, the Cotswolds, across Hadrian’s Wall, to the northern most tip at his destination.  The descriptions of the countryside and the towns will have you feeling like one of his followers.  His renewal through the beauty he encounters is energizing.

The lessons learned are thoughtful, and thankfully the ending is a satisfying one.  But don’t be fooled by the flirty title – this is not a humorous travelogue.  The story moves quickly from its main character’s whimsical decision to walk, into a serious observation of human behavior.