You know what it's like to have a song stuck in your head and to wonder why you can't shake it. In this exceptional first novel, those annoying fragments acquire meaning. Mary Beth helps people make sense of their lives by making sense of the lyrics they can't get out of their heads. It's how she makes ends meet for herself, her adopted son and her younger sister, Leeann, after their father's disappearance and mother's death. Mary Beth's clients worship her and credit her with all sorts of miracles.

But when one of Mary Beth's readings results in tragedy, town opinion starts to turn. She turns off the music, and things begin to fall apart. Leeann becomes anxious as the bonds of her little family are tested. She struggles to face a past that wasn't what she thought and a sister who is not the paragon Leeann has made her out to be.

This is a beautiful and bittersweet debut that explores the meaning of family and memory. Told in first person by Leeann, it brings colorful, small-town Missouri to vivid life through quirky characters and silly love songs. It's easy to accept the idea that the soundtracks of our lives hold meaning; it's more difficult to acknowledge what that meaning is. That's what Mary Beth and Leeann are forced to do, in a story at once funny and touching, heartbreaking and wise. (May, 320 pp., $12.00)

Reviewed by: 
Jen Talley Exum