A lot of modern writers try intricate literary hi-jinks in their writing style in order to appear original, to appear to ‘have a voice’, and in the process lose the plot—and very often the reader. Mitch Albom keeps it simple: his story has everything a good story needs: drama (occasionally tipping into melodrama), unexpected twists and turns, plentiful tugs at the heart strings, simplicity of language and narration, suspension of disbelief, no loose ends dangling irritatingly, and an air of verisimilitude that makes you want to believe that all you are reading is true. In many senses it is true: anyone who appreciates music will realise that and anyone who has played an instrument will identify with it completely. With this in mind perhaps, Albom makes the ‘narrator’ of the story music itself: a tactic that might remind you of school essay assignments but which works charmingly here. And verisimilitude is given a leg up by the contribution of real life musicians and celebrities in the narrative (with their kind permission of course) to the storyline. So you meet greats like Clem Dundridge, Darlene Love, John Pizzarelli and Wynton Marsalis among a host of others all playing their part in the life of Frankie Presto.
Albom tells us the story of Frankie Presto, extraordinarily talented guitarist and singer, who is born in Spain under dramatic and tumultuous political circumstances (Franco). In the rather cinematic (but riveting) beginning, his mother is killed by soldiers in the church she takes shelter in and the baby is rescued by a nun, who can’t deal with the squalling child (who even now needs music more than milk to keep quiet) and is thrown into a river. The baby is rescued by a kind-hearted sardine factory owner and then, as a boy, tutored by El Maestro, a blind guitar teacher who… No more must be said about him here, but to go on: Frankie is sent off to America, with a gift from his teacher—a guitar with six very special, indeed, magic strings. Strings that can change the lives of people, by turning blue, one by one, when circumstances demand.
The storyline is simple enough; it’s a love story at heart. Frankie falls in love with Aurora York who he meets as a boy in Spain —again, under very dramatic and dangerous circumstances. But like any love story it rips apart at the seams, as Frankie becomes a major music celebrity and gets caught up in all the craziness that goes along with it (drugs, booze, women). It then heals and is wounded yet again seemingly irrevocably this time, during Woodstock and which causes Frankie to chuck up everything to the extent of mutilating his own hands so he is unable to play again.
The story’s timeline tacks back and forth—through the years and decades—something which can frustrate a reader trying to keep track of events. But Albom weaves his narrative so skillfully that you don’t ever lose the thread.
And then there are the myriad characters that Frankie meets and interacts with: Celebrities apart, you keep expecting to meet any number of low-life horrors and hard-bitten cynics with evil in their hearts, but instead, most of the characters are refreshingly pleasant, ordinary people willing to help and who mean well. Even so, there’s enough drama in the narrative to keep you glued and wonder what twist or turn awaits you next. Oh yes, there are astonishing coincidences and parts that stretch credulity to the maximum, but frankly they merely add to the mystique of the tale—and hey, we must remember, that truth is stranger than fiction! By the end, Albom ties everything up neatly (having music as the narrator helps in avoiding complicated explanations!) and the tale ends satisfactorily enough. As the story unfolds, Frankie realises the power in his strings, and does change and saves lives (usually inadvertently), as one by one in crisis situations, the guitar strings turn blue. Until there’s just one left…
The Magic Stings of Frankie Presto is an enjoyable, riveting read that reminds you that many of the best stories are told simply and straightforwardly, and are aimed straight as an arrow at your heart.