Synopses & Reviews
From the author of I Was Amelia Earhart,
a luminous love story that winds through several generations—told in Jane Mendelsohn’s distinctive mesmerizing style.
At its center are Milo, a severely wounded veteran of the Iraq War confined to a rehabilitation hospital, and Honor, his physical therapist, a former dancer. When Honor touches Milo’s destroyed back, mysterious images from the past appear to each of them, puzzling her and shaking him to the core.
As Milo’s treatment progresses, the images begin to weave together into an intricate, mysterious tapestry of stories. There are Joe and Pearl, a husband and wife in the 1930s whose marriage is tested by Pearl’s bewitching artistic cousin, Vivian. There is the heartrending story of a woman photographer in the 1960s and the shocking theft of her life’s work. The picaresque life of a woman who has a child too young and finds herself always on the move from job to job and man to man. And the story of a man and a woman in seventeenth-century Turkey—a eunuch and a sultan’s concubine—whose forbidden love is captured in music. The stories converge in a symphonic crescendo that reveals the far-flung origins of America’s endlessly romantic soul and exposes the source of Honor and Milo’s own love.
A beautiful mystery and a meditation on love—its power and its limitations—American Music is a brilliantly original novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
The celebrated author of I Was Amelia Earhart
brings us a brilliant, kaleidoscopic story of human connection that soars with imagination, spirit, and Mendelsohn’s distinctive mesmerizing style.
Honor is a physical therapist with a mysterious patient in Milo, the Iraq war veteran whose destroyed back is the only testament to his emotional scars. When Honor touches him, she and Milo are overwhelmed by startling visions of the past: Of 1930s New York, where a young marriage is tested by the arrival of an intriguing cousin; of a female photographer whose life's work is irrevocably stolen; of a young mother determined to make it on her own; and of 17th-century Turkey, where the forbidden love affair of a eunuch and the sultan’s concubine threatens a tragic end. As the stories converge in a crescendo of revelations, they bring Honor and Milo closer to healing and understanding. A breathtaking mystery and meditation on love, American Music is a compassionate and wondrous novel.
About the Author
Jane Mendelsohn is a graduate of Yale University. She is the author of two previous novels, including the New York Times best seller I Was Amelia Earhart. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Reading Group Guide
1. American Music
is preceded by two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare: “O boys, this story / The world may read in me: my body’s mark’d / With Roman swords”; and one from Billie Holiday: “If you expect happy days, look out.” In what ways do these quotes introduce major themes of the novel? Why would Mendelsohn choose such disparate figures as Shakespeare and Billie Holiday?
2. Why has Mendelsohn chosen American Music for her title? In what ways is music important in the novel?
3. Milo at first resists Honor’s attempts to help him. What is the turning point that allows him to open up to her?
4. American Music is centered around the idea that stories reside in the body and can be released through touch. Is this simply a metaphor, or does it represent a process that can happen outside the pages of a novel?
5. In what ways are Milo and Honor like readers within the novel? Why do they feel driven to understand the stories that are emerging from Milo?
6. When a taciturn Vivian is being interviewed before her show at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the museum’s benefactors says: “I can see why you never married. You don’t want to reveal anything” (p. 63). What parts of her life does Vivian want to keep secret? In what ways is American Music as a whole about the process of keeping and revealing secrets? What are the novel’s most surprising revelations?
7. Why does Iris steal Vivian’s photographs? Is she justified in doing so?
8. What effects does Mendelsohn achieve by layering her novel with the stories of so many characters from such different time periods?
9. Late in the novel, when Honor kisses Milo, “she felt a peace in not having to imagine anymore. Trouble starts, she thought, when we take the symbol for reality. . . . She didn’t have to do that anymore. . . ” (p. 211). Why would Honor feel peace at “not having to imagine anymore”? In what ways has she taken the symbol for the reality?
10. Mendelsohn's prose style might be described as lyrical or impressionistic. What are the most distinctive features of her writing? How does it differ from more straightforwardly realistic narrative prose?
11. Is American Music primarily a love story? How are the love relationships between Joe and Vivian, Hyacinth and Parvin, and Milo and Honor connected?
12. What does American Music reveal about the trauma of war? How has Milo been affected by nearly being killed in Iraq and by being pinned under the body of a dead fellow soldier?
13. Honor tells Milo: “Your body is like a haunted house. . . . And it seems as though I live there” (p. 185). In what ways is this true?
14. American Music is a novel of many disparate threads—different time frames, different characters and relationships, different generations in the same family. How does Mendelsohn bring these together at the end? What larger connections exist between all the stories in the novel?
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The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of American Music, the mesmerizing new novel by Jane Mendelsohn, best-selling author of I Was Amelia Earhart.