Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

To date, David Mitchell hasn’t written a book I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. In fact, it will be one of my favorites because of its subject matter.  I don’t always fully understand Mitchell’s work, especially the horology storyline that runs through his most recent books.  But I love the way he combines complicated characters, places, and situations with beautiful writing and a sense of the fantastic.

Utopia Avenue is the name of a band in 1968 London. Four musicians from broken bands are brought together by Levon Frankland, an inspired and unusually ethical manager. Their disparate musical styles and personalities form something much greater than the sum of its parts, which I suppose is true of all great bands.  In fact, much of this book feels like an homage to the rock music of the 60s. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia are just a few of the famous characters who interact with the band over the course of this novel. 

If you love a good story about a band, this novel has it all.  Mitchell plays with every rock band trope you can think of, from the promiscuous lead to the drummer who’s mostly ignored.  Think Almost Famous or Daisy Jones and the Six, but much better. 

The strength of this book lies in the character development of its three narrators: Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, Jasper de Zoet (you’ll recognize this name from other Mitchell novels), and occasionally drummer Griff and manager Levon. These characters struggle with the usual things: sex, money, drugs, family, fame, death, mental illness, artistic creation, and life on the road.  Mitchell turns each band member’s personal crisis into a song, and frames each chapter as a single on one of the band’s albums. 

I absolutely loved Jasper’s character and his story can be viewed in multiple ways, which is again what makes Mitchell such a strong writer.  I also loved Elf’s character, who struggles as a talented woman in what people see as a man’s field. 

And in additional to the rich history in this book of rock and roll, war protests, and the hippie movement, this book takes you from London to Rome to New York to San Francisco. I love books with a strong sense of place, and Mitchell brings that to this book, covering many historical music venues and the feel of these cities in the late 60s. I especially liked the way the band members react to seeing California for the first time.

As I mentioned above, there’s a horology storyline that threads through this novel.  If you’re familiar with Mitchell, you won’t be surprised by this, but readers who are new to Mitchell will be. I’m sure someone will do a detailed analysis of all the threads that connect this book to Mitchell’s other books (I’m picturing one of those giant string maps in detective shows). I’m sure I missed most of these connections, except for the obvious de Zoet and Marinus connections, but many of the minor characters sounded familiar.  

The end blew me away. I stayed up well into the night finishing this book, which is unusual for me.  Then I had to reread the end the next day because I wasn’t terribly alert the first time around. 

David Mitchell does it again. Enough said.

Note: I was fortunate to receive an advanced review copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Random House. The book publishes on July 14, 2020. 

  9 comments for “Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

  1. July 14, 2020 at 11:16 pm

    Sounds like an alternative history story, or am I misled? Beatles come to mind, though they were earlier.

    • July 15, 2020 at 8:11 am

      I think of alternative history as taking history in a different direction – this is more like plunking down a fictional band in the midst of all these real ones. They don’t change anyone else’s trajectory. The Beatles are mentioned frequently, as are Clapton, Pink Floyd, Cream, The Rolling Stones… so much great music at this time.

      • July 15, 2020 at 8:55 am

        I can live with this definition. Thanks for clarifying. Up to my tbr with the book!

  2. July 15, 2020 at 4:19 am

    I’ve read a couple of very poor reviews of this and so, although I’m usually a Mitchell fan, I was in two minds about whether or not I wanted to read it. Your review is starting to tip the balance his way!

    • July 15, 2020 at 8:08 am

      Interesting, I’m curious what other people disliked. It is a lot more linear than his other books, and a more traditional type of story. For me the music and the time period was fascinating. I also know very little about music, so if he got that part wrong I wouldn’t know.

  3. July 16, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    I love David Mitchell too. I’ve moved it up on my to-read list based on your review!

  4. August 23, 2020 at 5:58 am

    I’m still reading Utopia Avenue and I need to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet still — one that I skipped over because i didn’t think it tied in with the horology storyline.!

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