Allison's Book Bag

A Part to Play by Jennifer Fry

Posted on: December 15, 2012

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Jennifer Fry has described her debut novel, A Part to Play, as a contemporary re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera. For fans of this famous tragedy, this is excellent news. For everyone else (myself included), take heart. The Phantom of the Opera connection means, of course, that there is a romance with a troubled musician, but there are other issues too as you’ll discover later in my review. For now, I’ll also confess that A Part to Play was so well-written that I found it difficult to pinpoint what aspects to feature as part of my review. Finally, I decided on these three outstanding ones: complex relationships, purposeful descriptions, and realistic handling of emotions.

Let’s start with the complex relationships. After her sister’s death, Lucy is shipped off to boarding school, because her parents are unable to handle their grief. Never mind that Lucy herself is still just a teenager and so could use adults to shepherd her through this difficult time. Instead her parents view her as the strong one, meaning apparently the best choice they can make for her is to send her away. The result is that Lucy must deal not only with her grief, but with perceived parental rejection as well. At this point, some authors would have kept Lucy’s parents behind the scenes to preserve reader dislike. Other authors might have instead brought them back onstage where they could magically transform into perfect parents. Neither happens, which feels true to life. Unfortunately, not all of the relationships are as believable. The one that is a bit too cliché for my tastes is Lucy’s unexpected rivalry with the former leading drama star Nicole. For no valid reason, Nicole makes Lucy her most hated nemesis on first sight. Throughout three-quarters of A Part to Play, Nicole is the quintessential antagonist. Then one day Lucy hears Nicole in the bathroom crying, decides to befriend her, and suddenly the world is right between them. I don’t think so! Although Fry did fail with this one relationship portrayal, she was successful with multiple others.

Turning to purposeful descriptions, Fry showed off her mastery of craft in Chapter One. Her first two lines alone show the main character, set the scene, and build intrigue: “Rain drops splattered the windshield and violent wind forced the SUV across the yellow lane divider. The unseasonal storm matched Lucy’s mood.” In such a short space, we already know that Lucy’s miserable, the weather is bad, and the family is struggling to stay on the road. Her parents are introduced like this: “His furrowed brown, his mouth in a permanent frown. No humor in his eyes. They hadn’t said two words to each other the entire ride. Not much different than the last few months. In between the endless silence, the only sounds in her house were the shuffle of those damned slippers her zombie of a mother wore.” Forgive me for so extensively quoting passages, but there are so many ineffective ways Lucy’s family could’ve been portrayed that I wanted you to read Fry’s writing for yourself. But that’s not to say Fry always delivered. For example, she resorted to a lackluster summative paragraph for Lucy’s first improvisation: “Students began whispering when she didn’t start the scene. She couldn’t do this and didn’t even care how she looked. So she turned and walked off the stage.” Blah, how dull is that? Overall though, by the time I’d finished reading A Part to Play, I wanted to learn as much as I could from Fry’s writing style.

Last, there is the realistic handling of emotions. For a first-time novelist, Fry certainly undertook some challenges. Readers will only tolerate a story’s main character wallowing in self-pity for so long. How then does an author stay true to reality, while also keeping readers engaged? Fry walks a tightrope when she allows Lucy to reject parents, friends, studies, and clubs, but also to explore the origins of music drifting through the school’s old heating system and become infatuated with a troubled young musician. Sometimes I feel that Fry wavered, but mostly Fry maintained an amazing balance. Fry also faces a risk, when she creates a romance for Lucy. The simple resolution for a plot about a lonely young woman would have been to have a man rescue her. At first, and perhaps for too long, this even seems the route Fry will take. Then Chris turns out to have troubles of his own, which create a twist in the plot. Even here, the simple and “feminist” solution would have been to have Lucy turn into an independent woman. Yet Fry mostly dodges that route too. Sometimes tackling a challenge can backfire; in Fry’s case, it worked in her favor.

English: Lon Chaney Sr. and Mary Philbin in &q...

English: Lon Chaney Sr. and Mary Philbin in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)  http://www.archive.org/details/ThePhantomoftheOpera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d be remiss if I ended my review without referring to the A Part to Play’s parallels with The Phantom of the Opera. In the famous musical, leading lady Christine begins hearing a voice at the Opera House which sings and speaks to her; this voice belongs to a Erik, a physically deformed and mentally disturbed genius who was one of the building’s architects. Similarly, in A Part to Play, Lucy is moved by haunting music drifting through the boarding school’s old heating system. This music belongs to Chris, a troubled young man who is one of the school’s maintenance worker. At this point, the two stories somewhat digress, but to explain how would spoil the story. Not being a huge fan of The Phantom of the Opera, I had to search out a synopsis and felt surprised at how many parallels there were. A Part to Play should please Phantom fans. At the same time, it’s a riveting and dramatic story in its own right, and so others should take delight in it too.

Is A Part to Play flawless? No. Fry had some less than glorious moments. Overall though Fry impressed me with how unflinchingly she portrayed the real life repercussions of sorrow, loneliness, passion, and love. For that reason, I greatly enjoyed her contemporary re-imaging of the “Phantom of the Opera”.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "A Part to Play by Jennifer Fry"

You’re welcome! Thanks for the opportunity to review your book. 🙂

Allison, thank you so much for your honest and thorough review. I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

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