Life less ordinary

Life less ordinary

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
Mitch Albom
Sphere
2015, pp 489, Rs. 499

This is a turbulent yet soulful love story of a talented musician and the love of his life, who nurtures his inspiration to create life-changing music. Frankie Presto’s unique talent in singing as well as guitar-playing takes him through the universe of Western music. Frankie earns dazzling mastery over classical music as well as contemporary jazz and rock and roll.

Music leads him from friendless penury to a place among stars like Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Carole King and even KISS. As a member of Elvis Presley’s troupe, Frankie becomes the first successful Elvis impersonator. Frankie is blessed with dashing looks and a magnetic stage presence, as well as a sonorous voice and mastery of the guitar. He becomes a pop star himself, with runaway hits and adoring fans. He gives a brilliant performance at Woodstock, but incognito. He meets and impresses The Beatles, Rolling Stones and more. Contemporary western music buffs will love these threads woven into the story. Readers unfamiliar with western music will also enjoy being carried along by the Frankie Presto wave. Number one New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom has deftly woven music into a fast-paced plot, enriching an exciting story that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.

Orphaned at birth, Frankie spends his early childhood in revolution-churned Spain. His mother dies immediately after his birth, in a church attacked by revolutionaries. A nun promises the dying mother to look after the orphaned newborn. Cruelly abandoned by this first guardian, the infant Frankie is rescued by Baffa, the middle-aged bachelor owner of a sardine factory. Baffa and his hairless pet dog give Frankie affection and a stable home. Baffa takes him for music lessons to El Maestro, a talented but moody and alcoholic blind musician.

This peaceful life of home, school and music lessons is short-lived. Nine-year-old Frankie meets, and instantly falls in love with, Aurora York, a British girl, who is drawn to his guitar-playing. Their innocent first meeting is violently interrupted. They watch horror-struck as Spanish soldiers execute civilian prisoners and bury them in a mass grave. Aurora urges Frankie to play “something that says we won’t forget them.” That defining moment “was the first time Frankie Presto attempted to give his music to someone else.” This enduring passion for music defines Frankie’s character and endears him to readers.

On that same fateful day, Frankie learns that Baffa has been arrested by the soldiers, and that he himself is being hunted down. With Baffa’s instructions and the help of El Maestro, Frankie is sent to America hidden in the bottom of a boat, with the hope that he will find shelter in the home of Baffa’s sister in Detroit. Betrayed and robbed by those in whose care he was entrusted, all Frankie has left are his guitar, and six strings gifted by El Maestro. He soon realises that these precious strings have magical powers. Frankie’s music can change people’s lives. It doesn’t happen because Frankie wills it that way. And when a life is altered, one of the magical strings turns bright blue.

In America at last, little Frankie accompanies musician Django, and learns the gypsy guitar technique. From the wings of the stage in Cleveland Music Hall, he experiences the first blasts from an orchestra. “The elegant twirling of clarinets and saxophones... even the look of the band... handsomely dressed in dark tuxedos... And the crowd! Nearly two thousand people!” Frankie realises that he wants this applause for himself. His struggles slowly bear fruit, and Frankie progresses from the sidelines to centre-stage.

Stardom, name and fame come, yet Frankie remains unfulfilled. He seeks Aurora, for she alone can give him soul-satisfying inspiration. An inner restlessness grips this “most purely musical guitarist”, who rebels against the commerce-driven music business. At the height of fame and popularity, Frankie vanishes far from the intrusive eyes of the world.

Encouraged by Aurora, he plays freely again: “better, richer, because his music now was passionate, more thoughtful... the way a great painter chooses not just a colour but the perfect shade.” He reappears decades later to give one last life-changing performance.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The passionate rapport between Frankie and Aurora is convincing. But the strings of coincidences holding the story together seem far-fetched. True, an explanation is given at the end, but it fails to satisfy. The device of using the muse Music to narrate Frankie’s story and linking tributes from musical celebrities, enriches the story with insights. However, shifting timelines can be confusing at times. Overall, this is a first-class entertainer, which could make a great movie.

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