The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “American Music”

Jane Mendelsohn’s new novel invites the kind of reading we don’t often allow ourselves anymore-that accomplished in one sitting. Honor, 21, is a massage therapist treating Milo, a paraplegic Iraq veteran confined to a V.A. hospital, who mostly refuses to speak and who, for reasons relating to his trauma, will not lie on his back. When Honor touches him, visions come to her of strangers dwelling in earlier times. There’s Joe, the well-meaning musician making his way in 1930s New York, cheating on his lovely wife with her lovely cousin who feels the music the way he does, and Parvin, the 17 th century Turkish dancer consigned to the Sultan’s harem. Gradually Honor and Milo realize they are both channelling these stories and discuss, becoming an understated chorus for the intervening narratives; their acknowledgment that Joe has conducted himself like a complete ass is most welcome.

All of this requires considerable suspension of disbelief, of course, but here the suspension is the story. The novel is a sort of fugue, floating between Honor and Milo’s relationship and the other stories that unfold as she kneads his back. 21 seems young for a person entrusted with Honor’s job, but in this novel, the important things happen to a character young, and they watch the ripples and repercussions of their response for years afterward, with emotions ranging from regret to relief to gratitude.

The intersection of memory and fiction clearly fascinates Mendelsohn, author of I Was Amelia Earhart . American Music owes a clear debt to Toni Morrison, namely Beloved and Jazz , but never equals them. Perhaps there are too many stories floating at once; sometimes this tale wants for an anchor, but perhaps that’s intentional on Mendelsohn’s part. The author gives her characters few points at which to stop and regroup: Milo will not leave the hospital until Honor has worked the story out of him; Parvin refuses to accept the fate her captors have foisted upon her (it’s complicated). Mendelsohn allows each of these stories to arrive at what feels like its natural end, like cymbals allowed to tremble until they gradually come to rest.