Everybody has dreams. Some people dream of becoming rock and roll stars and performing live on stage to adoring throngs. Some dream of fame and fortune, or at least of greater popularity at their junior high, high school or college. Some dream simply of reestablishing or establishing for the first time a relationship with a parent who they’ve not seen for years, due to divorce or to a separation. Some dream of it all, like Blanche Kelly, the teenage girl in Barbara Hall’s latest novel, Tempo Change. The way she goes about trying to attain her dreams makes for an interesting and enjoyable read, much like Amy Kathleen Ryan’s excellent book Vibes.
I thoroughly was entranced by both novels, and teen boys as well as girls should find Tempo Change to be a very good, page-turning read. It’s one even their parents (like myself) will be able to relate to, especially if they are rock fans themselves. The author takes a fairly formulaic story and transforms it into something special, working within the formula to make it her own.
Take one teenage girl or boy on the fringes of the cliques in high school. Throw in the fact of a single parent, usually a mother, either because the father has split or the two have divorced. The main goal of the teenager is, beyond indulging in the love of music and desire for fame or attention, to get back in contact with the absent father. Along the way, she or he learns a lot about her or his past, and what has made her or him the person she or he is today. As with all great stories, it’s what the author does with the formula that either makes for mediocrity or a really fantastic read, and I’m happy to say that this novel is the latter.
Tempo Change is written in the first person with Blanche Kelly as the narrator. Her father split when Blanche was barely old enough to remember much about him, though she has stayed in sporadic contact with him via email. He is the relatively famous singer, guitar player and band leader Duncan Kelly, who played around the time when the group The Replacements were putting out hits.
Though her parents’ marriage was not ideal, and in between the good times and fond memories Blanche knows they had fights, she can’t help idolizing her father and trying to rationalize his actions by thinking that’s how people with artistic temperaments sometimes behave.
The entire novel is a response to Blanche having been asked by a person called Maggie from the indie music magazine Topspin to write about her experiences performing with her band, the Fringers (because they believe themselves to be on the “fringes” of society at school) at the music festival Coachella. She tells Maggie, “I’m not a professional writer,” but the woman says that the magazine wants Blanche’s “unique perspective” on both the event and her father’s part in it.
Maggie offers her three hundred dollars, so Blanche agrees to write about what happened, and the rest of the book is about her idea to form the Fringers, how they eventually made to the music festival Coachella, and how she performed on stage there with her father for the band’s last song, a reworking of one of his old hits.
There are so many things I liked about this novel, it’s hard to know where to begin. Maggie’s longing to know why her father left and has stayed away is palpable. His leaving her mother made her drink heavily and drastically altered all of their lives. Blanche’s mother still attends AA meetings when the events in the novel take place, but she’s got her life back together and has her own clothing store and is dating Eddie, the owner of a guitar store. Blanche doesn’t care much for Eddie at first but comes to realize that just because someone chooses to own a guitar store instead of playing in a band doesn’t make him any less of a person.
The novel is full of musical references ranging from The Beatles to The Clash (Blanche wears a Clash T-shirt in one chapter of the book) to U2, Fleetwood Mac and The Replacements. They’re all bands I still like to this day, and that’s one reason I really enjoyed this book.
According to the book jacket, Barbara Hall has written and produced “numerous television shows, including Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope, and Judging Amy”, and she “created the Emmy-nominated series Joan of Arcadia.” I haven’t seen any of these shows, though I’m sure they’re all quite good if Tempo Change is any indication of the rest of her writing.
I recommend Tempo Change to anyone who likes to read about searching for one’s self-worth and identity or discovering where and how one “fits in”, and for anyone who likes rock and roll.