Huge thanks to R. Thorne for this sensitive, well-written review of Radio Head!
Laclair skillfully weaves the story of two central characters: (1) Shelby Rey, a 19-year-old woman who struggles to define herself in the wake of her mother’s abuse and inattention, finding solace only in the music she plays on a walkman left to her by her deceased father, and (2) Zac Wyatt, a rock-star who has made his name in his band Grounder primarily through singing, who desires to break out on his own, if he can only compose a winning song of his own (apart from fellow band member Stanford). Chapters largely alternate between their two different perspectives–with the exception of one chapter from Stanford’s POV and two from Roland Gibson’s. Zac and Shelby meet outside Gibson’s office; both of them have come to him for counseling.
I resonated most with Shelby’s world and her love of music. Early in the novel we see that others often misunderstand her and label her a “social misfit” and “mental”; police officers arrest her for “disturbing the peace,” yelling the names of songs about “cheating” at a couple (engaged in a tryst) on a bus. They then take her to a mental hospital, where she meets Emily Spenser, Roland Gibson’s wife. We learn that Shelby’s mother has largely abandoned her, giving her attention to exotic dancing and the men she brings to her home. Emily, and later Roland, see something in Shelby, so that they offer to take her in.
On the other side, we see Zac struggling with his desire to break free of his rock band, to achieve fame on his own. Following the example of the song writer in the band, Zac, though, has tried heroine and has landed in counseling with Roland Gibson, who belongs to a practice that also offered such rehab help to Zac’s famous girlfriend Ashtynn Kingston. I had difficulty relating to Zac and got annoyed with his language, excuses, and superficiality. Yet this characterization is probably true to fact and it sets up an effective foil to Shelby, showing what kind of influence she can have on him.
For the bulk of the book is the exploration of how these two come together to inspire a new song for Grounder. Shelby becomes a muse, but in her inside exploration of the band, she discovers secrets that ultimately undermine her initial commitments. There are a series of misunderstandings and choices that derail where you think the story might be headed. Will Zac write the song that will be his ticket to his solo career? Will Shelby and Zac end up together? How does Shelby’s mother react when she learns her daughter may be dating a rock star? Will Roland and Emily be able to help Shelby resist any dangerously impulsive choices?
Laclair carefully fashions her characters and pulls us into her story. Of particular note are her descriptions of how Shelby feels the music and how she sees the melodies in certain people she meets. Those who have been touched by music will find these passages particularly vivid.”