Author Playlists

Rachel Cantor’s Playlist for Her Novel “Half-Life of a Stolen Sister”

“…the music I listened to while drafting had to convince my head and heart to feel both sad and hopeful. This was unabashedly emotional music!”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Rachel Cantor’s Half-Life of a Stolen Sister is a clever, fun, and transportive novel about the Brontë family.

Booklist wrote of the book:

“Cantor pulls out all the stops to make this a unique and unforgettable reading experience that is as difficult to describe as it is to set down . . . Clever without straining, true to the basic facts of the Brontë family history, and emotionally compelling as the children grow while continuously facing new obstacles, Cantor’s unusual tale can be read and reread for endless diversion.”

In her own words, here is Rachel Cantor’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Half-Life of a Stolen Sister:

Half-Life of a Stolen Sister is a novel that brings the Brontë family to a time and place much like our own. In the novel, I use different points of view and a variety of forms—letters, graphic novel page, dating-site profile, etc.—to tell the Brontës’ story in a new way. Much of the book (I hope!) is funny but there is, throughout, an undercurrent (often an overcurrent) of sadness. By the time Charlotte is thirty-three, she has lost her mother, four sisters, one brother, and a caretaker aunt. Some she loses when she’s a quite young child; Branwell, Emily, and Anne die when they are thirty-one, thirty, and twenty-nine, respectively. So the Brontë story is a sad one, and Charlotte’s grief must somehow be its engine. To write for her, I had to feel a small part of that grief, but I also wanted to write toward a hopeful ending: Charlotte will not live happily ever after, but she will find a redemptive love. So the music I listened to while drafting had to convince my head and heart to feel both sad and hopeful. This was unabashedly emotional music! Because the book took more than ten years to write, the music is, to say the least, not from this, or even the last, decade … I organize these songs below according to the emotional work they were required to do:

1. Grief

The first loss experienced by the Brontë siblings is that of their mother, Maria; the second was that of their oldest sister, also named Maria (known within the family as Little Mother, though she was only eleven when she died). “Requiem” expresses some of the grief I imagine the siblings felt on losing both Marias and another sister (Elizabeth). It refers to a “dark night of the soul” and asks “Mother Mary” (not so different from Maria!) to hold the singer in an embrace, so they might face their sorrows. The idea of a mother’s comfort and healing embrace recurs throughout the book.

“Requiem,” Elyza Gilkyson

2. Unrequited love

The next songs are about unmatched/unrequited love. In their mid-twenties, Charlotte and Emily went to Europe to study, allegedly so they might later make teachers of themselves. Charlotte seems to have fallen in love with her teacher there, a married man who may have encouraged her feelings—or maybe he didn’t. Charlotte, a highly principled but strongly passionate woman, probably knew she shouldn’t fall “deeper and deeper,” as her teacher would eventually “forget [she] ever came around”; this idea is expressed in “If I Didn’t Know Any Better.” Charlotte may also have convinced herself that while she would love this teacher forever, it was necessary for her to step aside—for his sake—as expressed in “I Will Always Love You.”

“If I Didn’t Know Any Better,” Alison Krauss & Union Station

“I Will Always Love You,” Dolly Parton & Vince Gill

3. More grief

Not surprisingly, after the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne, Charlotte went through something of a Dark Night of the Soul. She was, by her own definition (and that of her age), a spinster, lacking in powers of attraction and destined, she believed, to live the rest of her life alone. “Spiritual” expresses not just grief over her many losses but grief over a projected future alone, destined to die “a lonely death.” The song refers poignantly to a “last breath,” recalling the labored last breaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne, who died of tuberculosis.

“Spiritual,” Charlie Haden

4. Wistful longing

After our most intense grief has passed, we still think about what we’ve lost—sadly, wistfully. It calls to us. In “Wuthering Heights,” the ghost of Cathy (for me, a stand-in for Emily) lays her claim on the living, refusing to let go. In “Caledonia,” the singer is distracted by thoughts of the past; he sings about a longed-for homeland, but he might as well be singing about the people he’s lost, whom thinks about “all the time.”

“Wuthering Heights,” Kate Bush

“Caledonia,” Dougie MacLean

5. Hope

After the worst of grief passes, there can be a clearing: new love may arise. Daring to hope when it seems we have nothing to hope for can be a radical act, an act of enormous courage. These songs give voice to that hope. The first, “After the Storm,” suggests we imagine a time in the future “with no more tears,” when love no longer breaks our heart. It urges the listener to go “over your hill” in order to see what might be there. It doesn’t suggest that romantic love is what you’ll find, but “In This Heart” does. In that song, the heart is waiting, waiting, waiting to love someone, to adore someone. Love, the listener must believe, is possible.

“After the Storm,” Mumford & Sons

“In This Heart,” Sinéad O’Connor

6. Fear

Of course, the more possible love seems, the more scary it can feel, as expressed in these two songs. In “Winter Winds” the head (saying yes) is at odds with the heart (which hurts and says no). In “Falling for You,” love arrives to tell the singer “it’s not always bad”; the singer may be “falling,” but this is terrifying for a heart so accustomed to being hurt.

“Winter Winds,” Mumford & Sons

“Falling for You,” Jem

7. Fulfillment

The final five songs present a vision of the sort of love I imagine Charlotte experienced at the end of her life: one that is steadfast and close (“Moonlight Still”) and banishing the hurt of this world (“Lay Down Beside Me”). As I imagine him, Charlotte’s husband is not someone with whom she shares ideas, or even words: rather, she understands and trusts in his feelings through his touch and the look in his eye (“When You Say Nothing At All”). He cherishes her as she deserves to be cherished (“So Are You to Me”); above all, he provides protection for her to “fly,” being there always to catch her if she falls (“When You Come Back Down”).

“Moonlight Still,” Noah Paley

“Lay Down Beside Me,” by Alison Krauss & Union Station

“When You Say Nothing At All,” by Alison Krauss & Union Station

“So Are You to Me,” Eastmountainsouth

“When You Come Back Down,” Nickel Creek

Rachel Cantor’s playlist for Good on Paper

Rachel Cantor’s playlist for A Highly Unlikely Scenario

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novels A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Good on Paper. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, and The Kenyon Review, among other publications. Cantor lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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