Set in the late 1980s, a group of misfits is thrown together on a quiet British street and form a family, of sorts. One afternoon an unknown woman faints in front of Frank’s music shop causing quite a stir. Frank helps her into his store and is instantly taken by Ilsa Brockman. She is foreign, German, and mysterious. She returns again and again to the street and the shop until Frank promises to give her lessons about music.
Frank is full of music knowledge. But even more, he seems to know exactly the sort of music that will elevate a person above their current situation. In the very first chapter a customer comes in looking for classical music, Frank puts him in the “listening booth” (an old wooden closet converted into two small booths) and plays Aretha Franklin instead. Frank has this clairvoyant-like knack for everyone who walks into his music shop.
A variety of subplots take place: the street is being bought up by a developer; Frank’s assistant, Kit, can never do anything right; a defrocked priest runs a religious store; Frank refuses to carry CDs in his store, he is strictly vinyl and it changes his business. But ultimately, everything revolves around the music shop. Except for Ilsa Brockman (always written as her full name). Ilsa comes and goes, doesn’t share where she lives, what brought her to the UK, or much else about her background. However, it is clear feelings are growing between Frank and Ilsa, as much as they both try to fake it, it’s hard to ignore their sweet interactions. It reads like watching teens falling in love for the first time – lingering glances, embarrassed brushes against one another, sharing bits of their history, awkward silences.
Frank’s history is sprinkled throughout the novel. It becomes immediately obvious he gained his music knowledge from his mother. Their relationship is strained except where it comes to music.
Music Shoppe is a well-written with deep character development, a well-paced plot and descriptive prose. I do wonder why Joyce didn’t title this novel The Record Shoppe, perhaps because it is about the greater music of our lives? I wish I could meet these people in person, I like them that much. I recommend this novel, especially while having a cup of tea.