(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the novel’s opening scene, Marty Lambert vacuums the hundred self-adhesive glow-in-the-dark stars from the ceiling of the nursery that would have belonged to his firstborn child. Months earlier his wife suffered a second miscarriage, and he and his wife are now separated. The phone rings and a New York detective informs him that his brother Perry is dead, having thrown himself off the twenty-third floor of a midtown hotel. In the general wash of his own marital failures and disappointments, Marty’s first impulse is to feel sorry for himself. It is a self-pity which, on the way to New York to claim his brother’s body, gradually dissolves to be replaced by a single focusing purpose: to discover why his brother, in neither apparent crisis nor despair, would take his own life.

Yet The Music Room is both more—and less—than a simple mystery novel. Perry’s suicide is a riddle that is never completely resolved. Marty’s initial search through the effects of his brother’s life turns up no pat answers and few clues. Family memories prove far more telling. The real subject of the novel is the Lambert family’s haunted past, full of characters whose motives, like Perry’s, are never completely knowable, though they become, in the course of the novel, somehow understandable.

The literal “music room” of the title plays a small role in the novel’s action. In the present tense it does not even exist, having been destroyed in a fire caused by a careless cigarette smoker years before. Yet it functions figuratively as an emblem for the collective family closet, where dysfunction breeds further dysfunction. Marty’s investigation into Perry’s death draws him to uncover the secrets in his family’s closet, where a legacy of alcoholism, untimely death, and musical talent and its betrayal draws a complex portrait of lives spent searching for some kind of redemption. The promise of their future has dried up like the glue on Marty’s glow-in-the-dark stars.

At the center of the family mystery are the parents, Helen and Rudy Lambert. A Las Vegas show girl, Helen is rescued from a cheap and inconsequential life when Rudy, the son of a coal and tobacco heiress, impulsively marries her. When the spark of passion that ignited the union fades, it is replaced by a glue that proves to be puzzling in its strength. Helen and Rudy are adversarial and childish, yet bound together. One night, while Marty and Perry watch unobserved, their parents drunkenly dance and wrestle in the window: “Mother, whirling, collapses onto a sofa, Father jerks her erect, they both fall against a desk, sending a lamp crashing to the floor, and their immense shadows break across the library ceiling.” Helen and Rudy make colorful but fragile guardians; they throw a quality of broken glass into the family center. Yet their dance scene, which Marty finds “spectacular” and “vaguely frightening,” seems to please Perry.

Two seeds from the same broken source, the brothers develop along different routes, with Perry choosing suicide and Marty not sure what he has chosen until the novel’s end. One childhood incident in particular crystallizes the difference between them. The boys are at a summer party in New Jersey when Perry is fifteen and Marty is nineteen. Without Marty’s knowledge, Perry has volunteered their father’s Lincoln as the central piece in a daredevil game in which the players drive the car—with its headlights off—toward a ditch, the object being to stop the car closest to the edge of the gully without falling in. Perry drives the car into the ditch. Rather than feeling fear or remorse about what he has done, however, Perry feels an incredible wonder, an almost religious sense of awe. This moment, echoed years later by another daredevil leap Perry takes from a cliff in Corfu, seems to foreshadow the suicide jump and suggests that Perry was driven by something far more mysterious and engaging than either sheer recklessness or despair. Yet it is this riddle at the center of Perry’s character which Marty is never quite able to solve. At the party, when Marty admonishes his brother for the trouble he has just gotten into, Perry is disappointed; his brother has failed to understand the moment. “At least I know what kind of trouble I’m in, Martin,” he says.

In trying to pin down the elusive character trait that throws Perry into suicide, Marty inadvertently learns more about himself. Numb to his own pain, he finds one blind alley after another, blaming his mother, Perry’s teacher, Perry’s girlfriend, and the church to which Perry bequeaths his...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)