Book Review: The Soloist by Steve Lopez

The soloist started life as a series of articles written for the Los Angeles Times by journalist Steve Lopez. This incredibly inspiring true story then became a best selling book before reaching the big screen in 2008 featuring Robert Downey Jnr and Jamie Foxx. It tells the story of a meeting between Lopez and Mr Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic, and the unlikely friendship that blossomed from that.

In his life before living rough on the streets of LA, Nathaniel Ayers was, and in the story still is, a musical genius. An African American man accepted into Julliard on scholarship (a prestigious music school) at a time when racial tensions were high, Ayers was somewhat of a prodigy. However the rigours of such intensive training took their toll and with the second year of college Ayers developed schizophrenia and became unable to function in the Julliard world, ultimately having to drop out. The story of how he came to live on the streets wasn’t clear to me when reading the book, however the overarching message that reached me is that music is what kept him (somewhat) grounded to reality.

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For me the book was rather hard to read. In someways it was stilted, focusing more on information than the telling of a story, however knowing this book started life as newspaper articles explains why that is the case. It showcases the demands and patience required when dealing with mental health issues and how important it is to allow people to make their own choices in their own time, rather than forcing the views of society. The lack of a fairytale ending in which everything is resolved and tied up in a neat bow adds a realness and honesty to the story which some may find disappointing.

We first meet Ayers on Skid Row – LAs most notorious homeless area – playing a two string violin yet still creating a beautiful sound. Deciding to find out more, Lopez writes his story and is awed by the positive response he received from his readers. Invigorated and intrigued Lopez sets out on a tumultuous journey to get Ayers living back indoors, even spending a night on Skid Row with him to experience it for himself.

If you have an interest in mental health or homelessness this would be right up your street, and even if you don’t I think it’s a great read. Just be aware that it may not flow as well as novels like Elizabeth Is Missing.

Are there any great books you’ve read recently? I need some new ones to add to my reading list.

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