The Song Reader

LIST PRICE $14.00

About The Book

She can hear the music in peoples' souls.
Mary Beth and her younger sister Leeann are trying to support themselves in their small Southern hometown. So Mary Beth works to make ends meet by practicing her own unique talent: "song reading." By making sense of the song lyrics people have stuck in their heads, Mary Beth can help people make sense of their lives. In no time, Mary Beth's readings have the entire town singing her praises, including the handsome scientist Ben, who falls hard for Mary Beth and her unearthly intuition.

What happens when she can't make out the lyrics?
When Mary Beth reveals a long-muted secret in the community, however, she turns off the music and gives up song reading for good. Soon everyone's lives are out of tune: Leeann worries she'll never graduate from high school, and Ben can't conduct his experiments. Without Mary Beth's music the town's silence is louder than ever. Could it be that all the lyrics to all those foolish love songs really aren't so foolish after all?

Excerpt

Chapter One

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Song reading was her term for it and she invented the art as far as I know. It was kind of like palm reading, she said, but instead of using hands, she used music to read people's lives. Their music. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to. The ones they sang in the shower and loved the sound of their own voice singing. And of course, the songs that always made them cry on that one line nobody else even thought was sad.

Her customers adored her. They took her advice -- to marry, to break it off with the low-life jerk, to take the new job, to confront their supervisor with how unfair he was -- and raved about how much better off they were. They said she was gifted. They swore she could see right into their hearts.

From the beginning, my sister took it so seriously. She'd been doing readings less than a month when she had those cards printed up. Each one said in bold black letters:

Mary Beth Norris

Song Reader/Life Healer

Let me help you make sense of the music in your head.

[Family problems a specialty.]

Leave a message at 372-1891. Payment negotiable.

She had to work double shifts at the restaurant to pay for the cards and the answering machine, but she said it was just part of her responsibilities now. "I have a calling in life," she told me, "and I've got to act like it."

I wish I'd saved one of those cards, but I wasn't there the night she buried them at the bottom of the garbage can. It was after Ben left, and after I discovered she'd lied to me about my father. It was when the trouble with Holly Kramer was just beginning, and I still thought -- like most of the town -- that her talent was undeniable.

Some people even claimed she had to be psychic. After all, no one else knew that Rose was in trouble except Mary Beth; no one even suspected that Rose would take Clyde's car on that sun-blind Saturday morning and drive it right over the sidewalk and through the glass wall of his News and Tobacco Mart except my sister, who told Rose two months before that she'd better stop seeing Clyde. From the song chart, Mary Beth knew Clyde had to be bad news. She shook her head when Rose got stuck on "Lucille" for five weeks and warned her a life can't hold this much sadness for long. When Rose started humming "Hungry Heart," Mary Beth knew the lid was about to blow off Rose and Clyde's relationship. But she didn't tell Rose I told you so when we went with Rose's mother to bail her out of jail. She wasn't that way with her advice, not at all.

My sister kept file cards on her customers, "song charts" neatly alphabetized in a large green Rubbermaid box in the corner of our kitchen. On Saturdays she would meet with new customers in the little room downstairs our landlady Agnes had donated to the cause -- as long as Mary Beth kept the room clean and didn't disturb Agnes's husband's sketches and charcoal pencils still sitting on the desk exactly as he left them when he died eighteen years before. Sometimes she gave advice at these first meetings, but usually she waited until she'd kept the chart for at least a few weeks before she gave them a reading.

They were instructed to call twice each week, on Sunday and Wednesday, and leave a short message telling her the songs and the particularly important lines they had hummed for the last few days. She had to rewind the cassette on the Phonemate back to the beginning to fit all the messages that would come in. I helped her update the charts. (It was a lot of work, especially when they reported country and western songs, which I hated.) I wrote down the titles and lines exactly as they said, even if they got it wrong, for what's important, Mary Beth said, is how they hear the words. But if they were off on the lines, we would make a little star on their chart since Mary Beth said they might be hearing them wrong for a reason. We also made an "S" if they'd sung the lines on the machine, and a "C" if they'd sounded like they were crying or struggling not to.

Mary Beth was proud of this organized system. It allowed her to just glance at an entry and know quite a bit. For example, one of the entries on Dorothea Lanigan's chart was the last two lines of "Yesterday." Dorothea had changed only a word and a tense, but Mary Beth had nodded when she looked at the chart later that night and said, "Well, that's that."

Even I thought this one was obvious. After all, the song was about lost love, wasn't it? "It's too bad Dorothea and Wayne are splitting," I said. "She must be miserable."

Mary Beth looked up at me from the floor where she was sitting surrounded by charts and burst out in a laugh. "Leeann, they are going to be engaged by the end of the month. You mark my words." And of course, it turned out to be true. They had their wedding the next summer. Mary Beth was the maid of honor, since Dorothea said it was all thanks to her.

It was a gift, everybody said so. Sometimes I wished I had the gift, too, but I knew I didn't; I'd tried and failed too many times with my friends to believe otherwise. I asked them about their music and I gave them my theories, but I was always way off, and Mary Beth finally told me I was dangerous. "You can't mess around with something like this. What if somebody believes you?"

I knew, though, there was little chance of that. Mary Beth was the kind of person you take seriously; I had never been. Only my sister saw me as the thoughtful, intense person I felt I really was; my friends and acquaintances looked at me as a sweet, happy-go-lucky, go-along-with-anything kind of person. And I knew that was a side of me, too, but I was more comfortable at home, always had been, even though I didn't have parents.

Sure, we were a small family after Mom died, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and of course the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant. Even when we got Tommy, she kept it up, because she said babies could adjust to noise just fine, as long as you gave them the chance.

When Tommy first came to us, Mary Beth wasn't even all that surprised. She was only twenty-three, but she'd wanted a child as long as she could remember, and she was a big believer in things working out, no matter how improbable the odds. "It was meant to be," she concluded. "It's a sign that I've waited long enough."

At first, I didn't see it that way. I was eleven then; I knew you couldn't just hand over a living, breathing baby as payment for services rendered. Of course Mary Beth insisted Tommy wasn't payment, but I didn't see the distinction. After all, a customer had given him to my sister after the song reading was over, the same way they gave her cakes and stews and afghans and even cash occasionally.

Her name was Linda, but she called herself Chamomile, like the tea. She had a garden of red and purple flowers tattooed on her back, a string of boyfriends back in Los Angeles, and a fourteen-month-old son with big black eyes and curly black hair that she hadn't even bothered to name.

She called him the blob, because she was so sure he was retarded. He couldn't walk or crawl; he didn't talk or coo or even cry much. Nobody wanted that baby: not Linda, not her parents, and not any of the families on Missouri's waiting list for perfect, white infants. Mary Beth took this as another sign that she was supposed to have him. She didn't care if his daddy was black or brown or from Mars, because the first time she picked him up, he held on to her hair with his fist like he was afraid she'd disappear. When she curled up next to him at night, he breathed a fluttering little sigh of what she swore was pure happiness.

Linda was back in Los Angeles and the adoption was already final when the doctor confirmed what Mary Beth had been saying all along: the only thing wrong with Tommy was the way Linda had been treating him. He turned into a chubby-legged toddler who giggled as he followed us all over the apartment. He called me "E-ann" in the sweetest little voice. He called Mary Beth, Mama.

Sometimes I thought Mary Beth's gift would bring us everything.

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Nobody else in the whole world can say that, as far as I know. And even after everything that happened, I still find myself wishing I could go back to when the music was like a spirit moving through our town, giving words to what we felt, connecting us all.

Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker

Reading Group Guide

The Song Reader
Questions for Discussion

1. Mary Beth was keenly aware of people's thoughts and feelings, yet she wasn't always able to transfer this knowledge to deal with her own situations with her sister, father, Ben, and even herself. Leeann, a teen with a reputation for being lighthearted and carefree, seems better able to address feelings and memories on a personal level. Mary Beth's secrets haunt her, her inability to deal with her own memories tortures her. How does this shape their lives? Leeann offered Mary Beth several opportunities to reveal the truth about the past. How would things have been different had Mary Beth been honest? Could she have avoided the breakdown?
2. Tommy, like Leeann and Mary Beth's mother, is an orphan. Why is Mary Beth inclined to take in an abandoned child? What void does Tommy fill in Mary Beth's life? Why does Leeann think Tommy will be able to heal and ground Mary Beth at the end of the book, when he was unable to do so when she first got sick?
3. Leeann's quest to find her father is an important part of the book. Knowing what she does about how ill her father is, why does she call on him for help? Does Leeann ever really find her father? If so, at what point in the story does she find him? Describe what you feel for Leeann's father.
4. Mary Beth is strong and has endured much. Why does the incident with Holly completely break her down? What really caused Mary Beth to shut down? Why do music, Tommy, and her father fail to bring her back? Do you feel differently about Mary Beth before, during and after her breakdown? Explain.
5. What qualities does Mary Beth share with her mother? What qualities does Mary Beth share with her father? What qualities does Leeann share with each of her parents? How do these qualities affect how the sisters relate to each other and how they see their circumstances? How does the sisters' past manifest itself in the relationships they have with Juanita, Ben, Kyle, Mike, Holly and other secondary characters?
6. Early in the book, the author gives the reader some insight about the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Beth and Leeann's mother. After learning about how unhappy Mom truly was, do you accept the notion that her death was an accident?
7. The '80s have been characterized as a time when people began to talk openly about family problems and examine how their past influenced their present. The author artfully takes us back to the decade through pop culture references-the records, the record players, letters and the popular songs. How would this novel have worked differently had it been set in the today's culture of CDs, MP3s, e-mail, music videos and Oprah?
8. In several instances, walls play an important part in the story-when the sisters discover their dad's lists written on walls, when Mary Beth recreates her surroundings in the apartment after Leeann's accident and when Juanita reveals Mary Beth's first painting project in the basement of the old family home. What message is the author writing on the walls?
9. Where do you see each of the characters in five years? Do they relocate? Does Mary Beth take up song reading again? Does Leeann try to song read? How is Tommy's life influenced by his past? Does Dad leave again? Is Ben in the picture? How does Mary Beth and Leeann's relationship evolve?
10. Do you hope there will be a sequel to The Song Reader?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Lisa Tucker is the bestselling author of The Promised World, The Cure for Modern Life, Once Upon a Day, Shout Down the Moon and The Song Reader. Her short work has appeared in Seventeen, Pages and The Oxford American. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Downtown Press (May 1, 2003)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743464451

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