By Barbara Shoup
Perhaps Nora shouldn’t have, but she sat down and kept listening until Bob Dylan’s gravelly voice singing “Like a Rolling Stone” undid her. Listening to that song when she was young, she had heard it as a taunt directed at those in the older generation who thought they knew everything, refused to change.
But listening this afternoon, in her own kitchen, what she heard was the terrible loneliness in his words. The sense that everything you believed in and expected life to be could just dissolve—and where would you be then?
It’s 1965, and for the first time in her life, Jane Barth feels at home. As a freshman on Indiana University’s campus—free from her family and past—she finds herself and builds a life she can be proud of. But after becoming tangled up in the ’60s anti-war movement, she runs away from it all and builds a happy but quiet life in northern Michigan. Decades later, while dropping her only daughter off in Bloomington for her freshman year of college, she is unwillingly re-immersed in the life she led during college, a life she had kept secret from her closest friends and family for the last 30 years. Jane struggles to keep the past buried, but as her marriage begins to crumble and her only daughter leaves for college, she is forced to confront it.
An American Tune is a straight-shooting examination of life’s inevitability. We think we know what we want, we make decisions, we make mistakes, we move on; but we can never completely erase the past or the way it has shaped our lives. Jane’s story is heavy with nostalgia for decades long gone and the emotions of someone struggling to embrace the present. She’s not entirely unhappy. Her daughter, Claire, is the life and light of her world, but as she heads off to college, Jane’s life is thrown into turbulent unhappiness. It’s pretty depressing the whole way through.
Jane isn’t a heroine. Her inability to say no to friends and the constant guilt she feels for events out of her control lead her to bad decisions and clouded perceptions of the world. She can be frustrating, but at the same time so realistic. No one really makes the right decision every time. But for many people, that will make Jane a difficult protagonist to care for. She’s contemplative, unsatisfied, and unhappy, and there is very little time in the novel not spent tangled up in Jane’s emotions. It’s not a bad thing, but maybe 300 pages of doom and gloom is a little much.
Length aside, Shoup beautifully tackles emotions that everyone must grapple with at some point in life. Eventually, we must look back at our past and deal with the person that past created. She approaches the topic with rawness and ingenuity. Jane’s life is dramatic and full of small choices that end in drastic results. It puts the sometimes inane momentum of life in perspective. You may regret certain decisions, but at least you didn’t blow up a building, right?