‘The Music Shop’ doesn’t deliver on the fun of its romantic premise

Sunday, February 4, 2018 - 9:44pm

I like romantic comedies as much as the next person. In fact, I’d hazard that I like them quite a bit more than the next person. The easy, predictable textures of the plot and characters, the willing suspension of disbelief, the insistence that all problems can be solved with the right combination of words, timing and flowers — it’s formulaic, sure, but the formula works. It’s the marshmallow fluff of the entertainment world: devoid of substance but hard to resist. That’s why I was surprised to find that Rachel Joyce’s new novel, “The Music Shop” — a romantic comedy in book form if ever there was one — fails to deliver the sugar rush it promised.

“The Music Shop” opens in 1988 on Frank, “a gentle bear of a man” who owns a derelict music shop and refuses to sell anything more modern than vinyl records, even as the rest of the world becomes enamored with CDs. Frank has a preternatural ability to divine what song a person needs to hear to overcome the challenges in their life; Joyce describes finding the right song as “meeting a stranger in the dark, saying to them, ‘You’ll never guess what?’ and the stranger saying, ‘Hey, but that’s exactly how it is for me.’” This ability and Frank’s somewhat overdrawn selflessness has made him beloved in his community of quirky shop owners: Maud, the tough-as-nails tattoo artist; Father Anthony, the ex-priest and owner of a religious gift shop; the Williams brothers, identical twin funeral directors; and Kit, Frank’s hapless and overeager shop assistant. Nevermind that this cast of zany characters is drawn directly from films like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” or that the fact that this tight-knit community centered on “Unity Street” is almost too sickly-sweet to mention. With the exception of Kit, who is at times genuinely hilarious, more often than not these characters border on caricature, and the suspension of disbelief required by the reader to imagine them as anything more than one-dimensional is slight at best.

Enter Ilse Brauchmann, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past who brings color into Frank’s life (think “Notting Hill”). In the style of the classic meet-cute, she and Frank connect instantly: “Their eyes locked and everything else gave way and disappeared.” But Ilse is engaged to another man, and Frank has to be satisfied with the weekly music lessons he gives her. Joyce can’t be entirely blamed for the cheesiness of this line or the romance that grows around it; she’s working within a genre, and certain traditions have to be (begrudgingly) respected. But convention can turn very quickly into cliché, and Frank and Ilse’s fledgling romance, and the obstacles in its way — Frank’s inability to let himself be loved, Ilse’s hesitation to reveal her secrets — can feel too contrived to keep the reader invested. At some point, you want to shout, “Get over it already! We know you’ll get together in the end anyway!”

Joyce struggles in this book to find the line between charm and kitsch. The story has good bones: Joyce’s impressive depth of knowledge about and passion for music, her sensitivity to suffering, her insistence upon the power of love to heal and redeem. It would make a good movie, with the perfect amount of heft and heart to fill a 90-minute escape from the world. But the same things that would make it a hit if Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were to play it on-screen become lost in translation on the page. Without the substance to support the longer format of a novel, the charm of the “The Music Shop” becomes both overplayed and hollow, like a soufflé that’s risen too high and caves in on itself, leaving the reader with nothing but a toothache.