The writing is lovely but the romance feels creepy in Arthur Phillip’s latest novel.
Let’s say you’re a middle-aged man. You see a lovely 22-year-old girl singing in a bar. Do you (A) realize that the almost 30 years between you make you a sad cliché and allow her to get on with her life; (B) figure that hey, you’re still young at heart and woo her with Prada and expensive restaurants; or (C) spend hours outside her home, taking photos that you then mail to her.
If the answer is C and this is real life, you’re going to get slapped with a restraining order faster than she can say “stalker.” If it’s fiction, you’re the main character of Arthur Phillips’s lyrical yet befuddling new novel, The Song Is You.
Julian Donahue, a director of ads who made a living hawking shampoo (and enjoying the “perquisite struggling actresses and relaxing models his work delivered him”), has been upended by grief at the death of his young son. He’s separated from his wife, Rachel, who went through a string of her own affairs in a futile effort to cauterize her grief.
One night, he hears “Irish pop-enomenon it-girl of the instant” Cait O’Dwyer perform at a club, and her voice inspires in him the first feeling of hope since his son died. Intrigued and grateful, Julian leaves behind advice on beer coasters explaining how she can improve her stage presence.
Cait turns one of the bits of advice into a song and comes to look at the elusive Julian as a muse.
Phillips, whose first novel, “Prague,” catapulted him into the upper echelons of literary fiction, creates a tricky two-step between the characters. Julian’s obsession with Cait deepens, but the two never meet. Instead, he listens to her demo tape on his iPod as they have a series of narrow misses in New York and Europe.