An author takes a risk when they write in first-person. In order to make it work for me, the person telling the story simply has to be incredibly compelling, either in a good or a bad way. A great example is the narrator from duMaurier’s Rebecca – her perspective of the events and characters around her are a fascinating voyage of discovery. Unfortunately, the narrator in Sheet Music is a spoiled, occasionally stupid, and severely mommy-fixated young woman with whom I was occasionally angry and even more often frustrated. And, most seriously of all, I never for one moment found her even remotely compelling.
Magazine writer Justine Pagett profiles celebrities and other people of interest. Living in Paris where she fled from her New York home after the death of her mother three years earlier, Justine’s once promising career is on the skids after she reveals secrets told to her off the record by one of her lovers. In order to get her career back on track, she asks another former lover, Austen Bell, for help in contacting the elusive Sophie DeLyon, a legendary and reclusive composer and conductor.
Austen’s efforts are successful and soon Justine finds herself e-mailing Ms. DeLyon, who has tapped Justine as the perfect woman to finally tell the world her long-awaited story. But, shortly after her return to New York City, Justine begins to receive an increasingly threatening series of e-mails telling her to back off the story.
Of course, Justine persists. And as she prepares to travel to Euphonia, Sophie’s lavish Connecticut estate where each summer she hosts the gifted musical prodigies who are her students, Justine finds herself confronted by demons from her own past, most specifically her father and sister, from whom she’s been estranged since her mother died. But unexpected events at Euphonia put both the proposed profile on hold – and Justine in even greater danger.
The suspense here is intriguing. But, Ms. Rose is, I think, primarily interested in telling Justine’s story and that is where I had my biggest problems with the book. Though she pats herself on the back for being an astute student of human nature, Justine approaches the death of her mother and her family relationships with the black-and-white certainty of a 12-year old. Mommy was wonderfully, incredibly, fabulously good! Daddy was mean! And her reformed alcoholic big sister is mean, too! Despite her own acknowledgment of her mother’s occasional remoteness and her willingness to punish the family with the Silent Treatment, Justine never for one minute considers that there could be shades and nuances to her parents’ relationship and that maybe, just maybe, both of them could have been at fault. At one point when Justine protests that her father is talking to her as if she were 13, he replies: “You are acting even younger than you did when you were thirteen.” How true.
As for her sister, Justine never considers how her mother’s obvious partiality for Justine herself might have affected her older sister. Just how would you like it if your mother published a series a cookbooks called Justine Cooks – not Justine and Maddy cook, mind you – only Justine?
Justine also indulges in behavior that regretfully qualifies as TSTL. For instance, any journalist would know that revealing secrets told to you in bed – the epitome, I would say of “off the record” – is a major ethical breach and an invitation to a lawsuit, yet Justine seems surprised by both the hubbub and the resultant loss of her job. Further, she has apparently slept more than once with the subjects of her profiles, and though she waits until the profiles are done, this can easily ruin the most stellar of professional reputations. (Just ask Bob Greene, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, or Suzy Wetlaufer, who resigned as editor of the Harvard Business Review after her affair with Jack Welch was made public.) And, deep into the story when she knows that she’s in danger, Justine agrees to meet the anonymous author of a note in the middle of Euphonia’s maze without telling anyone where she’s going. Finally, while this doesn’t quite fall into TSTL land, it’s worth noting: Justine actually quite seriously considers ingesting (I can’t bring myself to write “eating”) her mother’s ashes.
I also have to mention that Justine seems to be the mistress of at least one amazing feat: Apparently, music played by her former lover Austen can make her orgasm. Yep, that’s right – just music. You’re a better woman that I, Justine.
But, Justine aside, the suspense aspects of the story work quite well. The revelations about Sophie DeLyon and those around her were both compelling and considerably more interesting than our protagonist. I have to admit, I was surprised by the identity of the culprit.
Frankly, it’s a shame that Justine so spoils this book, because M.J. Rose has a way with a story that makes me want to see what she might do with a more likable and mature character. But, right now, for all but the most die-hard suspense lovers, I would rate Sheet Music as no more than an average read and one that definitely requires some careful thought before plopping down the hefty hard cover price.