Katy Simpson Smith’s The Weeds is an engrossing and imaginatively told novel from a uniquely talented author.
The New Yorker wrote of the book:
“Lyrical, incisive . . . [The Weeds] reveal[s] a changing climate, the invisibility of women’s work and the perseverance of unofficial histories.”
I didn’t think I was cool enough to participate in this exercise. I don’t listen to music while I write, but I don’t gaze at paintings either, or watch Cate Blanchett storm through Tár. This doesn’t mean other art forms don’t water my brain; like all writers, I move through the world as a sponge, seeking emotion. The way Bessie Griffin’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” can dissolve the heart—art pulls us out of ourselves, plunges us into ourselves. But no, when I write, my room is silent. There are no audible markers that I seem to be Having Fun. (But I am! I am!)
So I can’t show you the obscure tunes I rocked out to while my fingers tapped away on the keys of my laptop. Nor can I reveal the thoughtfully curated musicians my characters reference—if I remember correctly, there are only two: Scarlatti and the Beach Boys, though I had to cut the Beach Boys because I wasn’t willing to pay $300 in copyright fees.
Instead, let me use music to retell the same story using a different medium. An exercise in translation. The Weeds is a novel about two women combing the Roman Colosseum for plants. It isn’t really about weeds so much as it’s about women behaving as weeds: struggling to grow, struggling to be loved, in near-constant battle with the forces of the weed-hating world. There are two alternating narrators (one in 1854 who is longing for a woman who’s abandoned her; one in 2018 who is raging against men, academia, and a rotten childhood), plus a ghost. This playlist, then, alternates their arcs and tones, from 1854’s melancholic dreaminess—occasionally self-pitying but increasingly self-righteous—to 2018’s teeth-gnashing fury, which slowly mellows into self-acceptance. And, of course, the ghost shoulders his way in.
PJ Harvey, “Sheela-Na-Gig”
2018 shows up in Rome from Mississippi still raw from her mother’s death and the various injuries of female adolescence; if someone were to ask her how to be a woman, she’d probably squat down, bare her privates, and flash her fangs, like the medieval Irish carvings Harvey references in this thrashing rejection of feminine politeness.
Arlo Parks, “Eugene”
1854’s heart, meanwhile, has broken in a very different key. Her lover has married a man—betrayal!—and 1854 is left wondering how such a pure love could be transferred into such rough hands. “Seein’ you with him burns / I feel it deep in my throat,” she might well sing. “Read him Sylvia Plath / I thought that that was our thing.”
Sleater-Kinney, “Male Model”
The main male presence in 2018’s Roman adventure is her advisor, a professor who knows to tread lightly around attractive young women, but who has no qualms denigrating her intelligence. When Corin Tucker blasts, “I’m so sick of tests / Go ahead and flunk my ass,” I hear 2018’s hardening anger as her advisor pooh-poohs yet another of her ideas. “You don’t own the situation, honey / You don’t own the stage.”
Kate Bush, “Cloudbusting”
We return to 1854’s sweeter tone (careful; it’s deceptive). There’s a hope that 2018 lacks, because 1854 still thinks her lover might come back. Surely she’ll come back. Aren’t the memories of their entwined bodies still fresh? She “just know[s] that something good is gonna happen,” and the insistent strings keep pushing this hope upward, like spring bulbs.
Patti Smith, “Gloria”
What’s fascinating about 2018 is that for all her misandry, she’s still wrapped up in the business of men: attracted by them, reacting to them, riffing on them. She’s Patti Smith taking the three chords from Van Morrison and adding her own wild poetry (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”). Is she learning how to work within the system?
Mitski, “Heat Lightning”
You can’t hold onto idealism forever. At some point, you have to accept the conditions of the relationship as they are and ask your partner, “Is this okay?” 1854 begins to wilt. Mitski’s soft drums usher us into submission. “And there’s nothing I can do / Not much I can change / Can I give it up to you? / Would that be okay?” Midway through, a rising piano intervenes; surrender need not mean defeat.
Santigold, “Chasing Shadows”
As 2018 comes into her own, her story becomes less about the outside influences plaguing her—she can actually handle this life thing herself, right? “Neon sign goes red / ‘You Are Here’ it says, well / At least someone knows where I am.” Santigold blends the swagger of the punk generation with a new assuredness. 2018 knows what she needs to do next.
Selena Gomez, “Lose You to Love Me”
When you finally let go of a wound, your body opens itself to new ways of being. Selena’s anthem of self-embrace is the rallying cry 1854 needs; the chorusing rounds of “To love, love, yeah” push her out of stasis into decisive action. Losing a lover isn’t the worst thing in the world, she discovers, and there are ways to recapture your own narrative.
Broken Bells, “The Ghost Inside”
What’s a ghost doing inside this novel? Why’s he whining about a woman (“She sold her love to a modern man”; “She got no future”)? Who killed him? He may be “carving a moat through the dust in your town / Crawling over rubble / Just to serve you,” but these women know the Colosseum like the backs of their hands; they know no man is here to serve them. Serves him right.
Grace Ives, “On the Ground”
Could 2018 actually be experiencing … happiness? When Grace Ives warbles, “I think I left it on the ground,” she’s not just talking about the heavy burdens of 2018’s rage but the weeds themselves, the fleabane and purslane and buttercups that have answered 2018’s request: “I wanna feel proud.” The pride of knowledge as an avenue to peace. Not just peace, Ives’ bop argues, but real pleasure.
Tori Amos, “God”
As 2018 is coming down off her riot grrrl mountain, 1854 is climbing out of her despondency pit and flexing her own rage muscles. But these women have learned the same lesson: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through / Do you need a woman to look after you?” Tori is the ultimate bridge between their aesthetics: sweet and pungent, breathy and roaring, soft piano and shrieking guitar, Madonna and whore. “You make pretty daisies, pretty daisies,” she accuses; it may be God who makes them, but it’s women who wield them.
Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of the novels The Story of Land and Sea, a Vogue best book of the year; Free Men; and The Everlasting, a New York Times best historical ﬁction book of the year. She is also the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Oxford American, Granta, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She received a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in New Orleans.