To say that Arthur Phillips is a versatile novelist is understatement at its worst. Equally capable of penning contemporary and historical novels, gracefully moving from subject to subject, he’s the sort of author in whom readers can fearlessly place their faith. After dazzling us with last year’s Victorian Angelica, he’s back in modern times with his fourth book, The Song Is You.
Set in New York, the story follows Julian Donahue as he navigates the shadowy, grief-filled world of a parent who has lost a child. A director—not of films, but television commercials—Julian did not take well to the role of husband until he became a father. Following the death of his two-year-old son, he manages to hack out a bleak existence, burying himself in music, while his estranged wife, Rachel, spirals through mourning. She longs to save the marriage; Julian wants to move on—a goal made easier after dropping into a Brooklyn club to use the restroom and staying to hear a raw performance from Irish singer Cait O’Dwyer. He’s consumed by her, but rather than introducing himself as another disposable fan, he becomes a faraway mentor and muse, setting himself on a course that will lead him from New York to Europe as Cait’s career begins to skyrocket. The relationship itself is fascinating, as Julian and Cait circle each other, gradually coming closer together.
In The Song Is You, Phillips has crafted some of the most memorable and affecting secondary characters in fiction, from Julian’s one-legged father who was obsessed with Billie Holiday, to the protagonist’s brother, Aidan, a trivia genius whose eccentric existence has been irrevocably damaged by an offensively wrong answer that he gave during a “Jeopardy!” appearance.
Here, Phillips has achieved what only the best novelists can—he’s written a book where the beauty of the prose is matched by the depth of characterization and the fluid movement of the plot. The Song Is You is complex and rhapsodic, heart-wrenching and satisfying, an absolute pleasure to read.
Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz.