The Soloist by Steve Lopez

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I listened to this book on tape over a round trip from Pennsylvania to Delaware. It was very enjoyable! This is a nonfiction account of a journalist, Steve, who meets a homeless man, Nathaniel, in Los Angeles. Nathaniel is a former student at Julliard who studied the cello; however, when Steve meets him he is playing a violin that is missing a string or two and looks pretty beat up.

Steve finds this to be a great story and runs it in the LA Times. He gets such robust feedback from readers that he is a little overwhelmed– they want to send instruments to Nathaniel. They send them to Steve’s office in LA– he gets 2 cellos and a violin, if I remember correctly. Later, I think he also receives a stand up bass.

Nathaniel struggles with mental illness and Steve does a great job looking into his history at Julliard and contacting Nathaniel’s sister among others from his life.  All of them say how talented he was, but he sort of just disappeared. His father abandoned his family when he was quite young and his mother remarried and Nathaniel did not get the attention he needed.

Much of the story is a tug-of-war between Steve trying to balance his home life– wife and child– with literally taking care of Nathaniel. Steve wants so badly to get him off the streets and he sets up numerous meetings with shelter providers and healthcare workers who all tell Steve the same thing– that we cannot force him to go inside. He has to want to. Steve is clearly maddened by all the opportunity he presents to Nathaniel, who continually refuses to become ‘part of the system’. Steve takes him to concerts– all kinds of awesome for Nathaniel.

Though eventually, they do get Nathaniel to live in an apartment that Steve sets up for him through a local nonprofit organization. They also get him a studio so that he can play music somewhere that won’t bother his neighbors. Steve and Nathaniel have a pretty big fight towards the end of the book, but they repair their relationship and continue to remain friends.

Nathaniel attended Julliard with Yo-Yo Ma and often mentions him throughout the book. The end of the book Nathaniel gets to see Yo-Yo Ma and even meet him back stage after the concert (thanks to Steve). Ma lets him play his cello — it is a pretty incredible moment for Nathaniel. Then, they go to his studio for Christmas which has all his instruments that were donated as well as a piano. Another well-known musician attends and they play music together.

I enjoyed listening to this book a lot. I do not think I would have enjoyed reading it in print, but it was a fun story to learn about.

Overall rating: 3/5

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