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  • American Music
  • Written by Jane Mendelsohn
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  • American Music
  • Written by Jane Mendelsohn
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Written by Jane MendelsohnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jane Mendelsohn


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: June 01, 2010
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59368-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
American Music Cover

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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.




She stands up in the subway car where she has been sitting and looks out into the darkness. Her stop is coming and she likes the moment before the light breaks through the window. There is her reflection in the glass, a ghost with a shifting skeleton and a visible heartbeat as the columns and dim lights that make up the architecture of this underworld scroll through her body rapid-fire in the blackness. Then she disappears into the light. She turns toward the doors. She adjusts the strap of the bag slung across her chest and quickly steps onto the platform.

It is raining softly when she emerges onto the street. From a distance, she appears to be marching, silently, through the mist. With her steady gaze and long coat, her faded satchel and heavy boots, she looks both present and ancient. She looks like some beautiful soldier arrived from history.

She walks several blocks along empty gray streets toward a large white undistinguished building. In the lobby of the building she shows an identification card and rides up in the elevator. She steps off and walks down a hall. A door is open for her. Inside, a man is lying chest down on a table, a thin white sheet covering his body. His hand lifts slightly when she enters.

You’re here, she says.

I’m here, he says.

That’s something, she says.

It is.

Every week she pulls down the sheet and studies his back. She washes her hands and oils them and then rubs the oil onto the skin. His hands clench when she starts to work. He seems to be experiencing something more than pain. As she touches him there is transmitted to her bones his fierce desire to remain separate. He is determined not to reveal his secrets. She has visited him for weeks and she knows his back by now, the flat plane between the shoulder blades, the slope down to the sacrum. But she knows only his back, his neck, his arms, his legs. He will only lie on his front. He will never lie on his back, never let her work on his chest or face. He will not tell her why. She knows only that he has seen more than he can share, and she was told during the interview that she would have to respect his privacy. These men are suffering, the nurse had cautioned her. These men are haunted.

Still, there were stories in his body that she searched for like a detective. She had begun to feel as though she could read him, as if she could interpret the meaning in his knots and sinews. Sometimes, and this was not the first time she had questioned her sanity, she received visions from his limbs, his muscles, his bones. The first time it had happened she was touching his ankle when there arose in her mind the image of a woman standing underwater in a shaft of light, her dark hair wafting weightlessly like ink. Then her hand reached his neck and she saw more people. At first, they appeared to be moving to music, glittering couples swaying on a dance floor. But then in a shift of perspective she saw hundreds of bodies, each alone, swaying upright underwater. An underwater graveyard with thousands of unseeing eyes staring directly at her.

Suddenly, she felt sick. The light changed outside, the sky grew darker, and in the small dim room the body on the table seemed to break beneath her touch. Then from inside that, as if it were a hollowed-out broken sculpture, came pouring waves of water. She placed her hands on the man’s back until she could not see the swaying bodies any longer. She took a breath. For the moment, there were no more visions. She was safe. Yet within him, she knew, were only more stories. For a soldier’s body is a work of art that contains his country’s history.

You were saying something in your sleep, she said.

No, he said.

Yes, you were trying to tell me something.

He whispered something inaudible, then nothing. She had her hand on his arm and in a sudden flash she saw a pair of cymbals made of burnished beaten metal. She thought she could hear the reverberations of their clanging, as if from a great distance. Then she looked down at his face and saw the rapid uncontrollable movement of his eyelids. He was sleeping, but he was not at peace.

He began to speak again. This time it was clear and she could make out most of the words. He described an elaborate ballroom and dancing with his hand pressed firmly against a woman’s back. He talked about someone who disappeared. “For years I looked for her in the jungle, in the desert. I saw her face on the body of a tiger.” He opened his eyes but he was still sleeping. She looked into those eyes and they were shining, metallic. What was he trying to tell her?

We died that night at Roseland.

He said they fell in love because of the music. Count Basie was making his New York debut on Christmas Eve at the Roseland Ballroom. The Count and the reflections of the Count on the instruments swayed slightly when he lifted his arm. He turned in time to the beat and his image danced along the line of brass, so that although he was gracefully and confidently conducting his orchestra he appeared to be imprisoned inside the music. He took a seat at the piano. He nodded his head. The music swung. The bodies on the dance floor moved like thoughts in one consciousness, bubbles in a glass of champagne.

He said he put his hand on a woman’s back. He pulled her close. When they danced they danced slow and that’s when he knew that the music would kill them both.

On the dance floor there were hundreds of us, swaying upright like moving tombstones.

Is this a dream? she asked.

No, he said.

When did it happen?


From the Hardcover edition.
Jane Mendelsohn

About Jane Mendelsohn

Jane Mendelsohn - American Music

Photo © Nick Davis

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.


“Redefines the genre. . . . Exacting, moving, devastating. American Music is a story told in . . . dazzling images.” —The New York Times Book Review

 “Unpretentious, moving, intelligent, and fresh. . . . Like Count Basie and His Orchestra, this book swings.” —Elle 

 “What a captivating storyteller Mendelsohn can be. . . . A romantic story of romantic stories, full of love and longing.” —The Washington Post
“Glorious. . . . An aleph of a novel—a keyhole one looks into and cannot pull away from.” —Los Angeles Times 

 “Luminous. . . . Intricately plotted and affectingly written. . . . A piercing, magical revelation about the capricious power of disclosed truths to lift us up or take us down.” —The Boston Globe 

 “If the artist Edward Hopper had been a writer, he might have dreamed up something like the New York-y 1930s sections of Jane Mendelsohn’s American Music, a beautiful bittersweet novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine 

 “Intriguing. . . . Haunting. . . . Dip[s] boldly into the waters of magical realism. . . . Even though life often plays in a minor key, it can be perfect sometimes anyway.” —The Miami Herald 

 “In her exquisite, psychologically fluent novels, the actual and imagined merge as Mendelsohn tests the power of stories to define, guide, and sometimes destroy us. Her third novel is an intricate puzzle of haunting, far-reaching, secretly connected love stories…. Sensuously rendered.” —Booklist (starred review) 

 “Beautifully rendered. . . . [Joe, Pearl, and Vivian’s] story is a heartbreaker, stark in its reality. . . . Powerful. . . . Hard to forget.” —Providence Journal  

 “Invites the kind of reading we don’t often allow ourselves anymore—that accomplished in one sitting…. Mendelsohn allows each of these stories to arrive at what feels like its natural end, like cymbals allowed to tremble until they gradually come to rest.” —Slate 

 “Haunting, mystical and beautiful, American Music is written in a uniquely creative style that poignantly and powerfully touches the reader contemplating the gift of music in an American period of history yearning for recovery and renewal.” —Historical Novels Review

“As in her earlier novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn proves a master of historical context: American history itself is as much a character as those who live and die through it.”  —The Charleston Post & Courier

“Jane Mendelsohn as produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year. . . . Brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.” —Sacramento Book Review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

American Music is a novel about stories—where they come from, how they live in the body, and what they reveal about the intricate connections between past and present. 

When Honor, a physical therapist, begins to work with the traumatized Iraq war veteran Milo, strange things begin to happen. Instead of easing the pain that afflicts him from a devastating spinal cord injury, Honor’s touch releases a series of powerful memories that rise up unbidden in the minds of both of them. These memories—and the vivid characters and stories they evoke—are fascinating, puzzling, at times frightening, and irresistible. Though Milo initially tries to end all contact with Honor, both of them feel compelled to follow these stories to their conclusion.

The cast of characters includes Joe and Pearl, a married couple from the 1930s, and Pearl’s cousin Vivian, with whom Joe falls in Love. Iris, the pregnant wife of a field doctor court-marshaled for insubordination during the Vietnam war, and her daughter, Anna, who will be shamed for having a child out of wedlock. The novel extends even further into the past through memories of an exotic love triangle between Parvin and Hyacinth, a seventeenth century Turkish concubine and the eunuch who tries to free her, and the cymbal maker Avedis, alchemist to the Sultan and unrequited lover of Parvin.  But precisely how and why Milo and Honor are receiving these strange love stories—and how the stories are related to one another and to them—remain a mystery right up until the the end of the novel.

The complexities of American Music resist easy summation, and Mendelsohn’s luminous prose creates a dreamlike atmosphere that pervades the novel. Like Honor and Milo themselves, readers are asked to make connections between the stories that arise from Milo’s body and to participate in Milo and Honor’s struggles to make sense of them. And if the book demands of readers more interpretive work than much recent American fiction, that work is amply rewarded. American Music is an extraordinary love story, full of sudden turns and richly layered counterpoint. But it is also a provocative exploration of the effects of war on human consciousness—and of the relationship between narrative memory and physical and emotional trauma.

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. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Village Voice, The Yale Review, the London Review of Books, and The Guardian. She lives with her husband and two children in New York City.

Discussion Guides

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?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits; J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun; Michael Cunningham, The Hours; Yasmina Khadra, The Sirens of Baghdad; Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead; Luke Larson, Senator’s Son; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five; Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

  • American Music by Jane Mendelsohn
  • June 14, 2011
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780307473974

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