This Bird Has Flown by Susanna Hoffs

Little, Brown

Review by George Yatchisin

If you have ever wondered what life’s like for a one-hit wonder, Susanna Hoffs’ debut novel This Bird Has Flown is for you. The book’s 33-year-old protagonist Jane Start had one big record a decade ago, a cover of a lesser known tune by a mercurial, brilliant superstar the book invents, Jonesy. Jonesy comes off as part Bowie—who, you might recall, was born David Jones—and part Prince—who happened to pen one of Hoffs’ band The Bangles’ biggest hits, “Manic Monday.” It’s the kind of book where you keep getting to play with rock history nuggets like that as fun Easter eggs, though perhaps none of them top, “Tours with siblings. That has to be fraught.” (Sorry, former Banglemates Vicki and Debbi Peterson!)

As the book opens, not only is Jane’s career a mess—she’s stuck doing a private bachelor party gig in Vegas—but also her love life has come undone—her partner has abandoned her for a quickly married and then pregnant hot model/actress. At least the latter issue starts looking up when she fortuitously gets to sit next to an Oxford don, named Tom Hardy, no less, on a trans-Atlantic flight. Of course, quick-with-a-quip Jane jokes about both the current actor and the esteemed Victorian writer, and impulsively also kisses Tom. For the book is a romance as much as it’s the story of Start’s re-start in the music biz.

Add it all up and This Bird Has Flown is rich with rock and roll insight and ripe with ribald sexiness. For the latter, you get lines like, “His features unfolded into a warm open smile, and I felt a fluttery throb in my chest that seemed to dart around inside me like a tiny hummingbird until it found a little nest to cozy into, zing, right between my thighs.” And that’s one of the less explicit moments. Hoffs doesn’t hesitate to make Tom and Jane’s fucking both fiery and funny.

But it’s through the inner workings of a musician that the book blooms. Jane and Tom communicate through lyrics and their love of often obscure tunes; how many folks can come up with a Left Banke cut that’s not “Walk Away Renée”? This delight in music comes as little surprise given some of Hoffs’ best work has been her series of Under the Covers albums (the entendre also informs the novel, doesn’t it) with Matthew Sweet, featuring loving versions of tunes from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Music moves and soothes and saves Smart, and Hoffs knows all those emotions from the inside out. For instance, when Smart suffers writer’s block, we get, “[The guitar] lay prostrate on the living room floor, as if passed out drunk, or dead.”

As witty as that glimpse of artistic pain might be, Hoffs also captures the dizzy heights, too, as in this passage when Smart nails a performance:

The high note was coming—it was coming coming coming and I would not fear it. I would conjure the old driving analogy and prepare myself…I would keep my hands steady but relaxed on the wheel…I would travel the road map of the song’s melody to its final steep ascent and liberate the note from its shelter deep within me. And when it sailed out clear and bright and free, it was as if it didn’t belong to me at all, but to everyone else, and I thought, My work here is done.

Of course it’s just after the first time Smart sings for Tom that the two exchange the l-word—she’s at her rawest and best and realest singing. And Hoffs can certainly sing, too, and now, evidently, pen a winning, engaging novel. As one character puts it to encourage Jane, “Life is but a dream, except it’s a lucid dream and you’ve got the oars.” Hoffs rows her debut novel to shore successfully, writing both a page-turning, sexy entertainment and a contemplative look at creation caught in the maw of commerce.