|Lisa Tucker’s debut novel, The Song Reader, was one of those rare novels that just astonishes the reader with its power and originality. Her follow-up, Shout Down the Moon, isn’t as striking or creative, but it still indicates that Tucker is a writing force to be reckoned with. A warning to readers, though: Downtown Press may be known for its hip Chick Lit books, but Moon is no lighthearted read. It’s grim, occasionally violent and downright heartbreaking.
Even though she’s barely over 21, Patty Taylor has learned not to expect much from life, and suspects she doesn’t deserve much out of it either. After growing up with an emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother, Patty left her rural Missouri home as a teenager and moved in with Rick, a violent drug dealer who promised to love her forever. By the time Rick was finally arrested and incarcerated, Patty was pregnant with his child. These days she sings lead vocal with a pop cover band that resents her presence and drags 2 year-old Willie with her from town to town.
Rick, recently released on parole, catches up with Patty in Paducah, Kentucky and tries to convince her that she still belongs with him But Patty has changed in the past three years. She doesn’t do drugs anymore, she’s earned her G.E.D., and she’s determined that Willie will have a better life than she did. Even though the musicians backing her up, especially keyboardist Jonathan, consider her a blonde bimbo who turned their respectable jazz quartet into a commercial sell-out, Patty is determined to use her one talent to find security. Unfortunately Rick won’t take no for an answer, and he’ll get Patty back even if he has to get rid of everyone standing in his way.
Tucker creates two memorable characters in Patty and Rick. Patty has suffered so much – her father’s death, her mother’s abuse, Rick’s cruelty in the name of love – and even now when she is trying to take pride in her new career, she endures the scorn of the musicians who are supposed to support her. When Rick comes back into her life, it would be natural for her to believe that their unhealthy relationship is the best she can hope for, but she finds a way to battle back. It’s amazing that a woman who has been beaten down so often still has the capacity to provide unselfish love for her son while searching for her true, strong “voice.”
Rick is arguably an even more compelling character: a ruthless villain who has occasional flashes of humanity. Also the product of a broken home and an alcoholic parent, at times he demonstrates a strange version of compassion and vulnerability, only to revert to sadistic and amoral behavior. While the reader knows he is bad news for Patty, you’re never sure until the suspenseful climax if there’s any hope for his redemption.
Tucker’s message about finding strength through music isn’t as revolutionary as the song reader premise of her debut novel; the heroine who becomes a great singer once she learns to feel the music is a fiction staple. I think Tucker also goes makes a miscalculation with the character of Jonathan, whose highhanded “music is art” philosophy runs smack into Patty’s “music is a way to survive” reality. Although he eventually appreciates Patty’s courage, he remains a sanctimonious prig for far too much of the novel; I didn’t understand how Patty could consider him her chance for a relationship that doesn’t hurt.
Downtown Press’ marketing of the book emphasizes the rave reviews for The Song Reader and avoids any cutesy Chick Lit chattiness. Still, I suspect there are readers who might pick up this novel because of the publisher and not have any inkling of the novel’s gritty realism. So I’ll repeat my earlier warning: Shout Down the Moon is beautifully written, heartbreakingly real and ultimately hopeful, but it’s a long night for Patty Taylor before she sees the light of day.