The front cover of Lisa Tucker's second novel, Shout Down the Moon, with a mother in a sun dress holding a baby on a long stretch of empty road, gave me the initial impression the book might be a light, "mommy lit" read. Combined with the phrases "gutsy girl" and "unlikely heroine" on the back cover, I imagined this novel would be too much like a heartbreaking country song that I only listen to when I'm sad. But once I started reading, the story of jazz musician Patty Taylor engaged me. On its surface, the book could be a common tale of transformation and healing; but Tucker's complex characters and relationships give shape to a strikingly honest representation of single motherhood.
The story centers around the experiences of single mom Patty Taylor, a singer in a jazz band. Tucker could easily have made the mistake of romanticizing a musician's life on the road, but as the story unfolds, Tucker portrays the hard life of the touring musician realistically: long days in cramped cars; musty, hard-luck clubs; the sometimes hostile audiences; the kind of gritty experiences a small band on tour might endure. Her physical descriptions are strong. When the band stops to eat at a local dive, you can practically feel the greasy countertop at the road side diner; when they crash after a gig, you squint from the glare of naked light bulbs in generic, off-white motel rooms.
Tucker experienced life on the road herself and at one time held many of the same low-paying jobs that Patty's character worked before becoming a singer. Tucker draws on her intimate knowledge of this life to create a world of characters with distinct voices. The "Patty Taylor Band" certainly experiences the ups and downs that most real life bands contend with, from the manager who never delivers on his promises, to the ego battles among artists with different priorities.
Patty's relationship with her son, Willie, adds richness and complexity to her struggle to transform from a drug dealer's timid girlfriend into a professional singer and competent mother. At one point in the story, Patty writes down her accomplishments in life thus far as a way to convince herself that she's succeeding as a mother. She thinks that if she can make a list of ten, that will prove that she's doing a good job, but she can only think of four: "One: I hadn't touched any drugs, not even weed, since the day I found out I was pregnant. Two: I'd worked hard and completed my GED before Willie was born, so he'd never have to feel like his mother wasn't good enough. Three: I'd been there for him day in, day out for two years. Four: I'd supported the two of us." The list that feels so inadequate to Patty, since it's six items short of meeting her ideal of ten important things, gives us readers a sense of how much she has changed her life to become a healthy role model for her son, someone he can emulate. It also shows how motherhood fuels her transformation and continues to propel her forward. And many of us can relate to the idea that there is some top-ten list for us to check off, some intangible combination of things we must do right in order to be a good parent.
For Patty, the already stressful life on the road with her two-year-old is compounded by the sudden reappearance of her son's father, Rick, a drug dealer recently paroled. Rick has a huge hold over Patty, partly because their families are so alike: "I look in his big brown eyes, just for a moment, but it's enough. This is what he knows about me that no one else does. This is the thing we've always had in common -- the ugliness at the root of our families, the lack of love, the hopelessness." Rick's character comes close to being the stereotypical abusive boyfriend, but Tucker provides enough background about Patty and Rick's relationship to make him more than a flat, stock character, and gives Rick a true voice of his own.
Although I found much to praise in this book, I felt that Shout Down the Moon slowed a bit during long flashback sequences about Patty's childhood and early relationship with Rick. Though her history of being verbally, and later physically, abused gives context for why Patty stays with Rick, the part of the novel in which she plays the doormat seems to be at odds with her tough, self-preservative character. Also, although Patty's singing and confidence in her own abilities as a songwriter are central to the novel, the reader only sees a snippet of her lyrics. Since we can only imagine the sound of Patty's voice and therefore the scope of her talent, it would have been nice to have a few more examples of her lyrics, providing more insight into her interior life.
Despite these few drawbacks, Tucker's attention to small details and her evocative descriptions bring Patty and her world to life. Tucker doesn't shy away from the violent or ugly sides of a character. She writes in a way that feels appropriate and honest rather than gratuitous, and her prose forces the reader to remain present in an awful moment: "After a while the pain is lessening, but there's a sharp rock poking into my back, his forearm is pulling my hair, and he's holding my wrists so tightly together that my fingertips are going numb . . . I'm telling him about the rock, about my hair, but he can't hear me." This is violence as it sometimes happens in real life: confusing, with the victim's senses heightened as she focuses on the digestible details of pain in the midst of overwhelming brutality.
Though I did not pick up Shout Down the Moon expecting it to be a quick read, I finished it in two days. The fast pace that continued almost all the way through to the nail-biter of an ending, as well as plot twists that came just at the right moment, kept me engaged. In a book that seemed to promise no more than a light summer read, Tucker ultimately delivered a compelling story with a hero anyone would relate to -- and ultimately root for.