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April 25, 2017

Book Notes - Taylor Larsen "Stranger, Father, Beloved"

Stranger, Father, Beloved

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sophisticated and intimate, Taylor Larsen's novel Stranger, Father, Beloved is an auspicious debut.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Larsen makes a noteworthy debut with a family drama that explores loyalty, lies, and well-being… Larsen captures every nuance with finesse, every emotion with grace. An emotionally intelligent family drama that examines the breaking point of a marriage."

In her own words, here is Taylor Larsen's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Stranger, Father, Beloved:

I wrote my novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, during a time of emotional turbulence that is reflected in the fictional lives of my novel's two main characters, Michael and his daughter Ryan. The book begins with a party at which Michael sees his wife Nancy talking with a stranger, who Michael is convinced should have been the man to marry his wife. He brings the stranger into their lives as a replacement so that he can leave the family. The marriage begins to split apart as Ryan goes through a period of sexual awakening and rebellion. Buried secrets slowly come to light. The music on my list is a mixture of music that appears in my novel as well as music that I listened to in the writing of it. The songs are filled with sexuality, grief, and longing for a more authentic life.

Alexandre Desplat: "Morning Tears" from the soundtrack for the film The Painted Veil
I listened to this song for years and even now as I listen to it and write this, it brings tears to my eyes and floods my body with a sense of mournful calm. The song is meant to be a ballad of mourning in a literal sense as it relates to the film, in terms of trying to accept death and the fact that love has been lost. For my novel, it brings sound to the deep pain of loss of all kinds, and I am amazed that a song can capture the nuances involved with the vulnerability that comes with real loss. This song captures it perfectly.

Hole: Live Through This
My novel is set in the 1990s and the daughter, Ryan is going through a period of sexual awakening. This is also the time period during which I came of age, so I can relate to Ryan. She is seduced by the angry music of bands like Hole, Nine Inch Nails, and Jane's Addiction. Ryan's father Michael is shocked by the posters he finds on her walls one day. When I wrote the following passage, I imagined the unnamed posters were photos of Courtney Love: "Two posters were of the same woman, a singer with full lips and a low-cut tank top staring at the viewer as if in challenge. The straps of her tank top were close to falling off her shoulders, almost exposing her breasts. He had been disgusted by the belligerent and blatant sexuality it professed and the anger burning in the young woman's eyes. He did not want his daughter to see sexuality as a challenge, as a threat to unleash onto others, as these posters suggested."

Tommy James: "Crimson and Clover"
This song oozes with longing—it is one of the sexiest songs I have ever heard and its echoes can be felt throughout my book. It begins with a single moan. Michael desperately wants to channel his sexuality in an unbridled sense, but he is too repressed and self-conscious. In contrast, his daughter Ryan's sexuality is exploding all over the place as she learns she has power over others due to her attractiveness.

The Police: "Invisible Sun"
Writing a novel about a man having a nervous breakdown involves going into his regrets about the past and his inability to claim what he wants in the present or build a future. Nonetheless, revelations emerge. This song feels like a meditation on pain and regret: "I don't want to spend the rest of my days, keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say…" Michael has spent his life keeping out of trouble and doing what is expected of him, and he just cannot take it anymore.

Patsy Cline: "I Fall to Pieces"
Towards the end of the book, Michael goes to a bar with John and this song is playing in the background. It plays unassumingly to underscore the fact that Michael is indeed unraveling, falling to pieces, though he is trying to ignore this by going out drinking. But, by the end of the night, he cannot escape himself and the truth he is so desperate to both cover up and confront. The song finds Cline singing about how she can't pretend to be just friends as Michael's central dilemma involves discerning who is a friend and who is a potential lover.

Tori Amos: "Cruel"
This strange song is the perfect backdrop for the book's central dilemma —being cruel to someone who loves or wants you. Michael is aware that he is cruel toward his wife Nancy, never giving her sex or affection. Ryan, mimicking her father's behavior, flirts with a friend's parent and then withdraws affection when she ultimately gets bored. Neither is proud of their ability to be cruel, but they are nonetheless.

Lou Reed: "Walk on the Wild Side"
This song would have been playing while Michael was in college at Yale in the 1970s. How Michael would have loved to have walked on the wild side! The closest he ever comes is back in college, where he finds refuge in drinking, causing a series of bizarre incidents that he chooses to suppress in his memory. Michael continually tries to access his "wild side" in his married life by drinking too much, hoping he can discover his younger self, one that seemed wilder and less lost and subdued.

Luther Vandross "A House Is not a Home"
The family house is a character in its own right. Nancy feels she cannot decorate the house to make it homey; it must remain formal and sterile. Ryan can feel the tension in her house, mostly coming from her parents' strained marriage, and so she avoids sleeping at home whenever she can.

Echo and the Bunnymen: "The Killing Moon"
There is a Gothic quality to this book. Part of it is the setting—crashing waves surround the peninsula, while bright stars often encircle the moon. Tall trees sway in the salty air. Amidst this stunning landscape, fraught characters run around full of desire and unexpressed passion. This passionate song mirrors their desperation as they try to grapple with who each of their "fated" lovers is.

Taylor Larsen and Stranger, Father, Beloved links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

The Brooklyn Rail interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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