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book review

Spinning out of control

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Rachel Joyce’s charming and deceptively simple fourth novel chronicles an offbeat love story between a mystery woman and an ardent, if lonely, collector and gently explores the power of memory and music and the certainty of change.

“The Music Shop’’ opens in 1988 in a run-down suburb of London. Frank’s shop sits on an eyesore of a street called Unity, which reeks of cheese and onion from a nearby processed-food plant. A poster in the window proclaims that Frank only sells“VINYL!’’ — at a time when CDs are on the rise. Chockablock with cartons and stacks of albums, the store features two listening booths fashioned out of Victorian armoires and a ragged Persian rug.

Not only does Frank, a large, wild-haired man, carry every kind of music (as long as it’s on vinyl), but he also possesses the extraordinary power to connect people with songs that make them feel better. If you tell him “how you felt that day, he had the right track in minutes.”

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While Frank can ease others’ heartbreak, however, he struggles with his own. His marriage ended on its first day. And he continues to mourn the loss of his single mother, Peg, who lacked maternal instincts but shared her son’s love for records, with “a care that verged on sacred.” His pain is so enduring that he cannot bring himself to listen to his mom’s favorite, Handel’s “Messiah.’’ “Peg had been dead fifteen years,’’ Joyce writes, “and it was still the one record Frank couldn’t bear to play.”

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Despite his claim to a solitary life, Frank is surrounded by a not-so-merry band of brothers, his fellow shopkeepers — eccentric outcasts barely scraping by, perched precariously on land a local developer wants to buy and raze for fancy housing. Among them are Maud, the tattoo artist who so adores Frank she’s inked his name under her bra strap; the Polish baker, Mr. Novak; Father Anthony, an ex-priest who sells bookmarks stamped with the Lord’s prayer; the hand-holding Williams twins, who run a funeral parlor; a failing florist; and Frank’s clumsy helper, Kit. How can this tattered army protect Unity Street?

Into this motley neighborhood appears a woman with eyes the color of black vinyl and “a look of such radiance and intensity [Frank] could not see how he would ever get away from it.” As if her eyes hadn’talready commanded enough attention, she promptly faints outside his front door. The object of Frank’s coup de foudre is Ilsa Brauchmann, and everything about her indicates that the course of this relationship will not run smooth. She’s from Germany; she may leave England; she has a vague job and a vaguer fiancé. Besides, “it was safer to stay uninvolved . . . [Frank] was perfectly fine with emotions, so long as they belonged to other people.”

Yet, there’s no avoiding love. Ilsa asks if she can pay Frank just to listen to him talk about music; they could meet in cafes or on walks, neutral territory. The first lesson, the “Moonlight’’ sonata, ends in a stroll to the lake and a moonlit boat ride. Despite his best intentions, Frank becomes even more smitten. “She was going to marry someone else. But he had never felt so happy.” As their encounters multiply, the reader becomes impatient for the couple to acknowledge the inevitable. But, excruciatingly, Joyce keeps the suspense going; she strings out the romance/non-romance, piling on missed opportunities, misunderstandings, missed connections with Shakespearean brio. In subsequent get-togethers, Frank walks Ilsa through “Stairway to Heaven,’’ James Brown, Tosca. No distinctions between high and low culture, for him all music is heavenly. An added bonus: His lessons are tutorials for the reader, too.

While the courtship stutters along, Unity Street falls into even more decrepitude. Graffiti mounts on shop windows and doors; marauding gangs of teenagers threaten customers. At a meeting to organize the merchants’ fight against the developers, Frank makes an impassioned speech about the importance of community and the need to preserve their corner of the world. Nevertheless, the florist, the baker, and the morticians all cave to offers too good to refuse. When, at last, the mystery of Ilsa Brauchmann is revealed, the disunity on Unity Street becomes so pervasive it may be too late for Ilsa and Frank.

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At the end, however, the “Hallelujah’’ chorus saves the day. What a hip and ingenious solution to the agonies of star-crossed love, loneliness, and displacement. In this instance, love, friendship, and especially the healing powers of music all rise together into a triumphant crescendo, which, like Frank’s gaze, makes the reader feel “charged with a whoosh of light.” This lovely novel is as satisfying and enlightening as the music that suffuses its every page.

THE MUSIC SHOP

By Rachel Joyce

Random House, 306 pp., $27

Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at mameve@mamevemedwed.com.