Book Review: A Cappella by Tanya Jennings Keenan

CD Reviews

A Cappella—a title so simple would seem to tell volumes about the novel; that the story and its characters will have music at their core; that the book will embrace the inherent community furnished via music to its practitioners. While Jennings Keenan’s debut novel does encompass some elements of these motifs, the execution is pretty hit or miss.

Let’s be up front: despite the title, A Cappella is not really a book about a cappella or music in general. More on that to follow. At best, it’s a metaphor for young people learning to operate on their own, independent of the metaphorical instrumentation of their families and childish things, with only one another’s voices to rely upon. But that’s stretching it a bit.

A Cappella tells the story of the final months of high school for four major characters, each of whom gets chapters that are (mostly) from her point of view, in rotation. There’s Angelina, a fretful girl who faces a life-changing event early in the novel. There’s Blake, a good girl with a big future who’s not above being a bit boy crazy. Catherine’s life at the dawn of the book is consumed with grief for the loss of her mother. Renee is estranged from her old friends, living a reckless life of promiscuity. The thread to bind the four is their membership in an elite a cappella quartet at their school, under the direction of their mentor, Sister Camille.

To the novel’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. It takes on topics such as teen pregnancy, peer pressure, drug use, sexual assault, and broken friendships, with aplomb and candor. I rarely doubted the authenticity of how characters felt or spoke, nor the author’s credibility in taking on some truly difficult subject matter. Nonetheless, the narrative wasn’t above tried and true story formulas, with more than a few plot turns reading disappointingly predictable, and more than a few characters oddly flat (particularly for the leading ladies’ male foils).

The greatest missed opportunity in A Cappella is the failure to let the music speak for itself. It’s challenging to create art about art, and particularly so when you’re trying to capture something as intangible and visceral as the a cappella sound with the diction of mere mortals. As David Mitchell wrote in his masterful Black Swan Green, “if the right words existed, the music wouldn’t need to.” It’s not so much that Jennings Keenan is unable to meet the challenge, but rather that she seems unwilling to face it at all. Time and again, she brings her four major players together in song, particularly in a moment of denouement at the novel’s close. At each chance, we get a couple paragraph, very literal description of girls singing together, and then move on with the story—at best, we’re outright told that their voices harmonize and meld. These musical moments probably should have marked transcendent times between the characters and represented their common struggles, their common growth. As the book stands, the music reads more like a cursory plot device to keep the characters interacting with one another.

I expect that A Cappella will connect with a specific subsection of readers—particularly young women who have lived through similar experiences to those of the protagonists, and to be fair, the book has many positive messages to give them. With that said, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend to members of the a cappella community on the whole.