The Sound of Love, by Maria Watts - 5 Stars

A free pdf of this novel was submitted to the Having Faith Book Review Blog for an independent opinion. The following started off as a conventional review but it’s since morphed into more of a discussion of the issues raised in the book, which I think could be more interesting. You could get a mild spoiler on the topics but I’ll keep it to a minimum.
      Five-piece boy bands performing on stage are a indecently similar to those columns carved into the shape of men, arranged in lines facing you and holding up the temple. Telamon, apparently, except the singers are usually shorter and less muscley. They’re all slightly different, like they were done by different carvers, so in a five singer band every fan has at least one type of dream boyfriend on offer and appealing to them, yearning for them personally, if you connect with the illusion. They are objects but you adore their faces, love their voices and imagine their dicks (be honest). I guess girl bands pull an equivalent trick (from someone born in the year the Spice Girls started). Forgive the semi-irrelevant asides but I’m emphasising that this phenomenon gets inside people’s lives, connects with them on a nostalgic level and even shapes our sense of attraction at an impressionable age when young adults are orientating themselves to the opposite sex. In Japan, kids learn their sexuality through comic books, in my country boys learn what their target looks like from unrealistic nudes in daily newspapers and girls find the silhouettes of their perfect mates in these boy bands. Come on, it’s not just me or my sister or Aunt Bessie and her thirty cats, whose intended was killed in a freak putting on socks at the top of the stairs accident after which she never looked at another real man, although the cats prefer a bit of Classical FM, if they can’t get tuna.
      I need to begin this by making the admission that two generations of my family have been conditioned by these little mobsters. Possibly three. First it was Mum, who gave up on Limahl and fell in love with New Kids on the Block, who if judged by Bill Nighy’s Love Actually standards couldn’t write a lyric, weren’t musicians and whose most famous line was “laaa-laaa-laaa, laaa-laaa-laaa, tonight”. Then she grew up slightly, adjusted to reality and I came along. Maybe New Kids was after I was born and Dad didn’t notice? Intrigue. After a while the cycle repeated.
I fell head over heels in love with censored of the five piece band censored (aargh, recent, embarrassing, people read this you know?). In a crowd full of people screaming at the band, I felt they were screaming for him but he was singing directly to me and I had to scream louder to show I was more serious about him than they were (a trufan). Although he was unapproachable, we were into a lot of the same things and the age difference was manageable, so surely it would work. It had to work. We’d already done it in my dreams, so he just had to know about me and it would fall into place, naturally. In the end, it was absolutely because we both had something one hundred percent in common that my unrequited love was shattered: An interest in what happens next when you hang around too long in young men’s bedrooms. All the really loveable ones in real life seem to be borderline in that sense at best. After that initiation, when George Michael appeared, in my mind at least, to single me out from his worldwide audience and sing “Gotta have Faith”, I honestly thought he was taking the piss.
      The Sound of Love, by Maria Watts, is a story conveying the living out of suitcases boy band experience. It shows what they do, how they spook the fans into blurring their behavioural boundaries and what happens when the boys’ access to the girlie candy shop goes to their heads. The heroine is the kid many of us used to be: impressionable, na├»ve and nervous, emotional and yours for a warm smile. Depends though. Are you with the band? You have to be with the band otherwise you’ve got to play by the normal set of rules, the harder ones. The book is beautifully written in an everyday vocabulary, tender even, a fully realised and believable tale of boy meets girl meets complication. As the author lays it out, the main problem that has to be overcome by the girl (Nina) is that he is a pop star and everything that goes with it, i.e. the very thing which attracted her to him in the first place. Interesting. Her learning curve in this story begins with the dream of having the singer for herself and then she has to adapt incrementally to the reality that monogamy doesn’t go with the job, so how can her small piece can ever fit into his flamboyant jigsaw? She follows the little chance she has of hanging on but has to compromise almost everything normal to keep in contention, for love.
      It addresses the big questions for young teens too, such as should I go to bed with him?  The twist comes with the scenario: The usual advice is “don’t do it” because boys like to hunt and win you over, so if it’s too easy and there’s no chase, they just have you for fun and hop off to hunt someone else, a better trophy. The harder the chase, the more you’re worth. Playing hard to get is grandma policy, slowly reeling him in like a fish. The problem with this picture is the boy is a pop star, so if you make yourself inaccessible and don’t go with him back to the hotel, the next short black skirt he sees will be crumpled on his hotel room floor by midnight and you’ll be… sorry miss but if you don’t have a pass you’ll have to leave this area. What was your name? Not on my list. It’s a very fine balancing act, being slow but not too slow, in a chase where you want to be caught at a finely calculated correct distance and time, enough to preserve your dignity. Careful, don’t run too far or he’ll be distracted by something easier. The next stage is to keep your youth and looks for as long as you can, at any price (or become famous yourself, a status catch).
      The second big question is that of betrayal. Normally, if you boyfriend has a one night stand you’d have to throw him out or set the precedent that it’s an offence below the threshold at which you would leave, which opens the door to an inevitable repeat. If he’s a famous pop star though, do you accept that this goes with the territory and make concessions (he can, you can’t)? Will he respect you? As if. What is he anyway, the King of France? Then he says nothing happened. Okay, so you go downstairs to see if it smells of condoms, or fresh soap, or worse still of her, which means he not only did it but he didn’t use protection, so it’s a countdown before he gives you a disease. Would you hang around? Salman Rushdie said that even if they wash thoroughly, the hair smells of the encounter (not sure if that’s true).
      Some girls aren’t aware this complicated ethical layer even exists. For example, I have a cutie friend who is fairly simple (congenitally, I think – oxygen restriction in the womb), who actually slept with the first three men she met on Tinder because she genuinely thought you had to. She now says it was one but she really got to three before we told her. So girl, if you want him for keeps, that’s what you’re up against, the easy ones who do what they’re told. They won’t get him for keeps either, but they might push ahead of you. In the novel, this is the constant threat that’s wearing Nina down. She doesn’t own him, but she sorely needs to.
      The other thing the author shows well is the way the female protagonist is changed by the experience of spending time with the singers, the dancers and the roadies. Nina begins as a well behaved sweet sixteen paragon figure and then gradually over the course of 429 pages (length is never a problem) some dirty words creep into her speech. It isn’t done for shock and that’s quite a good way to show she’s no longer the same person, so it’s good writing. She’s transforming into one of them, the suitcase people, by social osmosis. Teach her to play a guitar for heaven’s sake because she’s two thirds of the way there already and she deserves some status.
      I like the portrayal for the band’s owner and manager, who sees the whole thing as a business. No one, no matter how close a camp follower, can disrupt the enterprise or they’ll have to go. The suggestion is that the singers, the super hero talents (from the audience’s point of view) are also disposable if they don’t do what they’re told or if they can’t be managed and herded. That brief portrayal changes the dynamic of who made the band, who keeps it going and perhaps where most of the money goes to. You can’t tour non-stop for three years if the decisions are made by teenagers, which is obvious to us but not to sixteen year olds.
      [Spoiler] Another portrayal which I applaud is that of Nathan, the lead singer’s rival for the girl. He sets himself out to her as an uncle figure, “knock on my door, visit any time, sleep in my room if you’re locked out, let me console you, I’m on your side” and it goes on. At first you think he’s not interested physically, then you think he’s trying to score over his mate Chris (who finishes quicker than one of his singles) and then the understanding comes that he’s very patient and waiting for Chris and Nina to take an inevitable break in their relationship, which is absolutely inevitable because Chris doesn’t fully appreciate what he’s got. This is so charming, so haunting and an unrequited love mini-play within the main action but not a love triangle, yet. Any two-timed girl with a sense of awareness of this intensifying situation should realise they might be better off after re-jigging who they’re with. Then the author states Nathan’s position openly, which isn’t necessary in my view because the custodians of literature would say leave it.
      To resolve this intrigue, I hope that in the next book Nina gives Nathan what he’s so obviously crying out for, although the overall story will require that Nathan turns out to be bad and she has a lucky escape before choosing Chris (the Mills & Boon formula). It would be fair to put them together for a while though, if it means Chris gets to forgive her for a change and finds out what it feels like. I can’t forgive myself for wanting to direct the next stage of the plot but it’s the kind of story you can’t just leave unwritten. Maybe the Nathan and the uncle routine problem could be solved when he’s signing Funky Guys official memorabilia in the hotel for a dangerously attractive blogger who hands him one of their overnight bags (full of her stuff) that has ‘Funk The New Girl?’ printed down the side. You get one chance at life, right? It isn’t a solo career.
      What did I think overall then? It was a charming book, an eye-opener and much better written than anyone would expect. It wasn’t a fan-piece or a tribute to an existing musical outfit but an evenly paced true love story with serious and gradually revealed complications. As an example of its type, it was very good, certainly hard to improve upon. It made me think, I didn’t want it to be left there and I cared about the fate of the characters. It’s a good book. Bring on the sequel and please give Nina some guitar lessons.