I asked to review The Song Reader because the premise sounded intriguing, but I was unprepared for how moved I would be by this debut novel. A thought-provoking plot and memorable characters combined to make this the best book I’ve read in 2003. Ignore the Chick Lit packaging and the recommendation of Seventeen magazine; The Song Reader is meaningful, wise and unforgettable.
Leeann Norris is understandably proud of her much older sister, Mary Beth. After their father left home, Mary Beth took a job to help support the family, and when their mother was killed in a car accident five years later, twenty-two year old Mary Beth shouldered the responsibility of raising ten-year old Leeann. A failed attempt to locate their father led to Mary Beth’s recognition of her true calling, and she became a song reader.
As Leeann describes it, “She used music to read people’s lives. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to. The ones they sang in the shower and loved the sound of their own voice singing. And of course, the songs that always made them cry on that one line nobody else even thought was sad.”
Mary Beth advises her clients in their small southern Missouri hometown to call and list all of the songs that wander through their minds, and then she meets with them to determine the true meaning behind the music. Her clients are grateful for Mary Beth’s uncanny ability to help them make important decisions and understand their behaviors. One customer is so grateful that she leaves her baby boy with the Norris girls, who raise him as Mary Beth’s son.
Despite their unorthodox lives, the girls are happy. But Mary Beth’s acceptance of so many responsibilities eventually takes its toll. Her romance with Ben, the brother of a client, falls apart even though Ben appears totally devoted. Leeann discovers that Mary Beth has not been entirely truthful about their father, and her anger over the deception leads her to dangerous acts of rebellion. But the worst happens when Mary Beth’s song reading reveals a secret that the town refuses to acknowledge. Suddenly gratitude turns to anger and mistrust, and Mary Beth cracks under the stress. How can Leeann save what’s left of her family? Which of her own special gifts will help her find the key to healing Mary Beth?
Our narrator for this remarkable novel is 16-year-old Leeann, wise beyond her years yet still very much an adolescent. Through her eyes we experience Tainer, Missouri, in the 1980s and come to know Mary Beth. We admire and sympathize with the young adult who takes care of everyone around her until she’s literally empty inside. A restaurant waitress who never had the chance to pursue her own dreams, Mary Beth focuses all of her creative energy on her song reading profession until it proves to be more than she can handle. Leeann, too, is faced with more hardship than a teenager should even be able to imagine, yet her love for Mary Beth enables her to endure. Without the parental support they need and deserve, the girls are dangerously isolated until gradually they develop an odd but supportive surrogate family.
The Song Reader is full of remarkable secondary characters, and your heart breaks for them because of the tragedies they’ve faced. Yet the book isn’t at all depressing - the fundamental message is one of hope and redemption. Ultimately, however, without its fascinating premise the book would be just another well-written piece of Women’s Fiction. The idea of song reading makes perfect sense. Music touches a deep chord in most of us, and it does have the power, as Mary Beth theorizes, “to slip past all the things you think you know, and wish you believed, to what you really are.” The idea is so brilliant and yet so simple that you wonder why it hasn’t been explored before.
The book is marred only by an abrupt ending that leaves the reader wanting to know more about what the future holds for Mary Beth and Leeann. I know what the future holds for Lisa Tucker, however - if her forthcoming novels are as striking as this one, she’s going to be a very successful and well-respected author.