Signal to Noise
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2015)
* Music as magic and as the soundtrack of life
* Friendship & magical realism in Mexico City
* Twin story lines in the late 80s and the present
A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.
Mexico City, 1988: Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends, Sebastian and Daniela, and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love.
Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories she thought long buried. Is there any magic left?
My result: Recommended
Signal to Noise caught my interest because of the music focus, and sealed the deal with a hint of magic and the Mexico City setting. I usually don’t like magical realism, but the other factors made me give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Signal to Noise alternates between scenes in two different time periods. Twin story lines are woven together beautifully. Both stories are interesting in their own right, and chapters are well paced between time lines. Each story enriches the other, giving depth without sacrificing story and emotional suspense. It makes for a fascinating, layered read.
Both story lines are filled with music, and will spark memories for anyone who was around during the 80s. Signal to Noise will appeal to fans of High Fidelity or Eleanor and Park, but the references are more mainstream and accessible than Ready Player One. And, you don’t have to be a child of the 80s to enjoy the music references. Her dad’s a DJ, so her influences include classics from the 60s and 70s too.
To get the most out of Signal to Noise, listen to the Playlist as you read. Some scenes are vivid enough you can feel lyrics running through your head anyway. Other references are too quick to identify, and it’s nice to let a playlist fill in the blanks. Lastly, the mix of English and Spanish songs brings Mexico City to life in a way that’s far more vivid than a photograph. For me, the soundtrack showed me there were more similarities in Meche’s experience than I thought, and made me look for commonalities rather than differences.
Mexico City, 1988
Signal to Noise is a story about three friends growing up together in the late 80s. Meche is the leader of the trio. She’s not always a likeable lead, but the relationship between the three friends is intense and engaging.
Sebastian is as obsessed with literature as Meche is with music. Sebastian is quirky and funny, and kept me glued to the page even when I was fed up with Meche. Sebastian and Meche are the kind of friends that understand each other perfectly and are at peace in each other’s presence. Both have strong opinions, and minor disagreements can escalate quickly.
Daniela is the least dominant member of the group. At first it seems like Daniela gets pushed around, as the more dominant Meche always gets her way. But the more I read, the more I liked Daniela. She has her own opinions and doesn’t bother arguing about them. Instead, she just goes off and does her own thing. She’s happy to spend time with her friends, and play mediator when necessary, but she’s just as comfortable on her own. She doesn’t need other people to share her opinions. Daniela’s easy-going independence is a perfect balance to Meche and Sebastian vying for dominance.
Magic is part of the story but not the entirety. It’s very subtle at first. Meche works magic with her records, by finding the right song to match her desire. The three teens become more powerful as they learn the rules of their magic together. I also liked the role Meche’s grandmother played in their magical development. She tells stories of her childhood, and folklore traditions provide both clues and warnings.
Mexico City, 2009
But Signal to Noise isn’t just about Meche as a teenager. It’s also about living with mistakes and finding out if they can be fixed. From the very first scene it’s clear that something has gone horribly wrong. Meche is estranged from both family and friends, and lives halfway across the globe now.
It’s a setup that could have made both stories anticlimactic. Instead, both stories work together to make you emotionally invested. The more you read of their close friendship in the past, the more you want the three friends to reconcile in the present. The more you see of how damaged their relationship is now, the more you want to know what happened in the past.
This is a story about friendship first, not romance. But Sebastian and Meche share an intense connection that makes you root for them to get together. It’s unclear in both story lines whether they’ll find their way to each other, and I won’t give away what happens. But I would have enjoyed this story no matter how it ended. All three characters are so fully developed that I love them in their own right.
If you like Signal to Noise
You might also enjoy:
- Shadowshaper – Caribbean legends come to life in New York City, as the graffiti murals begin to weep. Urban fantasy with an Afro-Caribbean leading lady.
- Eleanor and Park – Two teens fall in love during the 80s by sharing their love of music and comics.
- Ocean at the End of the Lane – A grown man returns home to confront his childhood memories of his first friend Lettie, and the strange and dangerous things that happened to them.