cover image Songs of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost

Jamie Ford. Ballantine, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-345-52202-3

In his sophomore novel, Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) relies on one of literature's most familiar scenarios: the young orphan embroiled in tragedy. William Eng has occupied a Catholic orphanage in Depression-era Seattle for five years when, in an outstanding coincidence, he learns of his now-famous mother's upcoming local show, and so begins the painful quest to reconnect with the woman who put him up for adoption. From the wicked stepfather's predilections to William's anguished friend Charlotte, the tragedy in this story is largely predictable. It's hard to get a feel for the character of the mother%E2%80%94Liu Song/Willow Frost; the plot hinges repeatedly on her view that she cannot trust honorable people who care for her with the truth. Other characters sound alike%E2%80%94detached and cleanly contemplative. Straining against the heavy-handed symbolism%E2%80%94the gateway-to-salvation rosary, the blind girl ripping off a teddy bear's eyes%E2%80%94and moments of true sentiment sacrificed to convenient/clever phrasing, there are sections that glow. When the sheet music store where Willow first gained notoriety loses its footing as society embraces radio, the story opens up to more natural turns. On whole, Ford's second literary visit to Seattle's Chinatown, though quick-moving and occasionally warmhearted, is little more than a contrived evocation of the darkest element of fairytales and classics. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency. (Sept.)