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Susanna Hoffs' 'This Bird Has Flown' is a love story — and a valentine to music

Little, Brown & Company

Jane Start's life is all over the place.

The musician was once a star, albeit a brief one — she scored a hit single with "Can't You See I Want You," a cover of a song by a pop star named Jonesy. But in the 10 years that have passed since then, our hero has taken a fall: "I was living with my parents again, which at thirty-three was a demoralizing last resort," she says, bemoaning her new life with all of her possessions in four garbage bags, sitting near her "sagging twin bed."

Jane is the charming, funny, but unlucky protagonist of This Bird Has Flown, the debut novel from Susanna Hoffs, the singer and guitarist who rose to fame with the Bangles in the 1980s. It's a smart romantic comedy that proves that Hoffs' immense writing talent isn't just confined to songs.

As the novel opens, Jane is preparing for a gig in Las Vegas. She's not exactly thrilled to be playing a private party, but she chooses to look at the bright side: "The pay tonight would mean a deposit on an apartment, and a few months' rent, a chance to make another artsy record, even if no one bothered to listen to it. It would matter to me. If I could ever write another song again, that is."

She shows up for the performance "wearing a tiny scrap of fabric posing as a dress, half-hidden beneath my ex-boyfriend's vintage cardigan, the one possession I'd pinched, for sentimental reasons, when he'd left me for a twenty-three-year-old lingerie model. Two months ago." Her longtime friend and manager, Pippa, has some bad news for her: She's only going to play one song (her sole hit) to the audience full of "rowdy frat-bro types," and it will be accompanied by a karaoke track. And she's expected to sing in a hot pink wig.

After the show, Pippa insists that Jane fly to London with her, a chance to regroup and write some new songs. Pippa ends up unable to make the flight, which turns out to be a bit of kismet — Jane finds herself seated next to an Oxford literature professor named Tom Hardy. The two chat about books and music over the course of the long flight and Jane, unable to resist the handsome academic, impulsively kisses him.

Jane spends several days in London, pining for the one she thinks might have gotten away, until she finally gets a text message from him, asking her to visit him in Oxford. She does, and the two hit it off — so much so that she essentially moves in with him, accompanying him to events at his university, and befriending some of his colleagues.

She also gets some exciting career news: Jonesy, the author of her one hit, wants her to play with him at a special show at Royal Albert Hall. Jane isn't sure she wants to go through with it; she's been afflicted with stage fright for most of her career. And she's growing used to the idea of living with her new eternal flame, far from the spotlight: "Could it be the life I wanted was the one in England, with Tom? To write, record, perform in small venues — a folk singer's life?" But things get complicated with Tom — Jane learns that he's got a secret, one that causes her to see him in a different light.

Novels like This Bird Has Flown succeed or fail on the strength of their protagonists, and Jane is an unforgettable one. She's refreshingly three-dimensional, aware of her own faults, frustrated over the difficult time she has getting over her ex-boyfriend. She's self-deprecating, but knows she's talented; Hoffs never makes her the butt of jokes. The reader sees her as a friend, not an object of pity, which is crucial to the novel's success.

Tom, too, is a fully fleshed character, not the kind of stock love interest that Hugh Grant might have played in a 1990s movie. The relationship between the two is unforced and natural, and their dialogue together never descends into the too-cute-by-half banter that sometimes marks contemporary love stories.

This novel is a comedy, and Hoffs is a tremendously funny author; she writes with an amused gentleness that syncs perfectly with Jane's frenetic, somewhat anxious personality. And she nails the setting — London and Oxford turn into characters in the story, and Hoffs writes about them with real affection.

This Bird Has Flown is a love story, a sweet and tender romance, but not just one between Jane and Tom — it's Hoffs' valentine to music. (It's no surprise that she titled the book after a song by her beloved Beatles.) "I'd never yearned for the spotlight, only the music, only to strive to give others what music has unwaveringly given to me," Jane thinks at one point. "An outpouring of love, of expression, of connection." That's just what this novel is, and it's an absolutely beautiful outpouring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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