I remember coming across a five-pack special of Mitch Albom’s books some years ago. We readers are well-acquainted with the feeling of eagerness to get our hands on as many books as we can in a single visit to the bookstore. However, my slightly younger (and less wise) self cautioned me since I’d never read any of his work before. There are countless authors to choose from, so Mitch slipped my mind till a few years back when I was at an airport and fishing for something concise. That’s when I found The Timekeeper; when I finished that, I knew I simply had to read everything by this author.
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is the latest addition to Mitch’s books and I can assure you, you won’t regret reading it. It’s inspirational, witty, thought-provoking, and surreal. Suffice it to say that the book delivers a poignant story about a man who struggles like all human beings to find a balance in the different aspects of his life while making his own destiny doing what he does best.
The book starts off with two distinct notions. One is that of ‘Music’ being the only consistent narrator. Mitch has made Music an entity on its own which goes on to tell the tale of one of its favourite disciples, Frankie Presto. Music introduces us to a refreshing new idea of how people have certain talents
The second notion is that of the fictional character of Frankie Presto being woven into and around real musicians and life events. When Music is not narrating, the book is made up of excerpts of conversation with all the people who’ve worked with Frankie, and witnessed his playing. Names like Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Francisco Tarrega, Darlene Love, the Beatles, and many more are thrown into the mix. Telling the story of a fictional character through a real person makes the story all the more interesting.
Mitch showcases Frankie Presto to be the greatest guitar player in history but juxtaposes it with his humble beginnings as an orphan. He is raised by a sardine maker who realises the boy’s ear for music and cajoles a disgruntled musician into teaching him everything he can. At nine years of age, Frankie lands in America with nothing but a guitar and a pack of six strings that are both farewell gifts from his teacher. His love for music and his talent lead him on a voyage that spans many years, countries, bands and people. Through it all, like most musicians, Frankie faces hardship, love and loss. He also comes to realise how the music he makes with his beat-up guitar and old strings has the immense power to affect and change lives.
As much as Frankie is the core of this story, there are two other characters that the reader comes across who contribute to developing Frankie’s music and his person. There’s the teacher, El Maestro, once musician-extraordinaire and now a prematurely aging cynic, who pours into Frankie his love for everything music, and manages to leave a mark on his soul. He impresses upon Frankie that “the secret is not to make your music louder but to make the world quieter.” At another point, he tells nine-year old Frankie: “When you listen, you learn. Remember that, in music and in life.”
The other character is a British lady, Aurora York, whom Music refers to as “my only rival for Frankie’s heart.” He chances upon her in their childhood as she hangs from a tree and, for Frankie, she is the first and only woman from then on. Their stars keep colliding at different stages of their lives.
All things considered, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is testament to Mitch’s love for music. Before his books made it to best-seller lists, Mitch admits to having tried to make it as a musician in New York. He opted for journalism as a fall-back, and that became his saving grace. He commented that this book was all about being true to your talent once you find out what that is. Only then comes the innate sense of satisfaction and contentment. It is his fondness for music that has him writing songs and music occasionally, some of which have been recorded for films as well.
One of the elements I found unique about this book is how Mitch chose to write it from Music’s point of view. When asked about this in one interview, he stated that it’s fairly common to read books in which humans describe their passion for their gifts, their talents and so, he thought he would instead give voice to the talents to describe humans. It is, indeed, a fantastical notion, and allowed me to relate to music in a more personable way than ever before. I find that Music, much like medicine, is a very selfless gift. Whoever makes it, does so for someone else to appreciate.
If you are a music enthusiast, this book is for you. If you are on holiday or at home and wish to read something light that is still grounded in reality, this book is for you. If you have read Mitch Albom books before, this book is for you. If you have never read his work, this can be a beautiful beginning to your journey. And if, like me, you are just a humble reader who enjoys all sorts of writing, you are in for a treat.