July 18, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Noley Reid's stunning novel Pretend We Are Lovely is a poignant and unforgettable debut.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"[A] family must navigate the secret currents of guilt, obsession, loss, and―most dangerous of all―hope in this pitch-perfect examination of two Southern seasons in 1982. . . . In prose that ambulates between stark, hallucinatory, fuddled, and chewy according to the guiding character's point of view, Reid masterfully denies her novel the impulse to solve its characters' problems, leaving the reader with the brutal task of lingering within their experience."
Pretend We Are Lovely is a novel narrated by each of four living Sobel family members—mother Francie, father Tate, Enid age 10, and Vivvy almost 13—so the book's playlist is similarly multi-voiced. These are the songs of their hearts.
"Tree Hugger" — Kimya Dawson & Antsy Pants
The book opens in the summertime with Enid and Vivvy dangling from their special climbing tree. Enid is narrating this first glimpse and the fun, bouncy pace and loose unison of Kimya Dawson and Leo Bear Creek on "Tree Hugger" captures the moment. The song is silly, starting off about a flower and tree and cat that all want to be someone else—"a tree," "a different kind of tree," "a bee," and so on. Enid thinks she would love to be Vivvy, to be thin and have smooth, perfect hair. And Vivvy is fairly smug in preferring to be herself, but an even better kind of herself—one in the alligator shirts and headbands like her best friend Dawn.
"What I Am" — Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians
The take-it-or-leave-it attitude of this song has Francie written all over it. In the beginning of Pretend We Are Lovely, Francie is consumed with her food and exercise rituals, weighing the grams of iceberg lettuce and running laps around the Virginia Tech campus tennis courts. Like the song's persona, Francie knows what she knows and isn't interested in much else.
"Ruby" — Dave Rawlings Machine
Tate would give anything to have his family back, to have his wife Francie back most of all. "Ruby" is the song of a man who wants to be let back in but there isn't just his sadness for being excluded. Ruby, too, is sad, and he can see this: "Ruby, I can see your TV on / But the people there, they flicker and they're gone." I can't help but see Tate and Francie both in "Ruby."
"Sweet Tooth" — Dave Rawlings Machine
Enid and her father Tate have the sweet teeth in the family but so had the deceased Sheldon—an entirely insatiable one. I love how this song weaves an innocent love of candy into the strangling grip of addiction and the pain that satisfying the urge will bring.
"Carry That Weight" — The Beatles
Tate has always been heavy and taking The Beatles' weight literally in this song seems only natural. Enid "carr[ies] that weight," too. But the celebratory upsweep of the chorus—despite its admonition, "Boy, you gotta carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time"—says something far more important about Tate and Enid than their waistlines. They are dogged in their pursuit of love and, though given countless reasons to give up and grow hard, they never do and never would.
"Slow Like Honey" — Fiona Apple
Francie plays with Tate, reeling him in closer when she is drunk and lonely. This song is sexy, sad, and scary all in one. Apple sings, "Gonna hover over your life / Gonna keep you reaching / When I'm gone like yesterday."
"Dogsong Aka Sleep Dog Lullaby" — The Be Good Tanyas
The Sobel family dog is Floey, a large, hairy mutt they've had forever. Pretty soon, though, they get a second dog, a puppy they call "new dog." Despite being truly loved, the dogs don't get enough attention, so this lullaby is for them because even dogs need sweet dreams.
"Girl Downtown" — Hayes Carll
With a wife who won't let him back inside her love, Tate has fallen for one of his students, Holly, who has also fallen for him. But being with Holly feels more like a placeholder at first. One day with Enid, though, he stops in to Carol Lee Donuts, where Holly works, and he's just about as nervous and slow, ordering at the counter, as the boy in this song.
"I Lost It" — Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch wrote all the songs of my own life's soundtrack. They were who I was listening to when I first started writing and I think I will always find kernels of stories in their songs. And who in the world hasn't had something good then frittered it away without even noticing until it's too late? Certainly everyone in Pretend We Are Lovely has and I sure have, too. But the bit that really gets to me in this song is this: "I just wanna live the life I please / I don't want no enemies / I don't want nothing if I have to fake it / Never take nothing don't belong to me / Everything's paid for nothing free / If I give you my heart / Will you promise not to break it?" When I began writing this book, I weighed so little I could feel my ovaries like lima beans beneath the skin. A year and a half earlier, I weighed so much I could no longer feel any bones—not even wrist or finger—beneath the skin. The in-between time was spent calculating everything I ate and speed-exercising. Like Francie, I had a kitchen scale, notecards, and a special marker with which to write my tallies. I had so much to make up for and crammed 10 years' worth of dating into one miserable year. And then it broke me. The obsessive weighing and ritualized denying. I began to write and eat and it's no wonder each character is infused with a battle between eating and not eating, a battle between loneliness and being loved.
"Fat Bottomed Girls" — Queen
Holly is confidently curvaceous. Queen's bright anthem for big girls and our admirers can get us moving along in that direction. I see Enid and Holly dancing hard to this one. Maybe even Vivvy joins in. Francie can't get here but you know she wishes she could.
"Crazy Baby" — Joan Osborne
When Francie begins to eat outside the constraints she has lived within for so long, she cannot figure out how to live between the two extremes. She desperately wants both to overindulge and to deny her hunger completely. "Crazy Baby" perfectly renders her emotional dissonance: " . . . you're getting' really hard to be with / And you're cryin' every time you turn around . . . they look at you like they don't speak your language / And you're living at the bottom of a well / And you've swallowed all the awful bloody secrets / But you can't tell. . . . Oh, how long will you be sittin' in the darkness / Heaven knows."
"Beaumont" — Hayes Carll
Tate must come to grips with his reality—that his daughters need him and his wife won't allow herself to. As if he's Tate thinking of Francie, Hayes Carll sings, "I saw you leanin' on a memory / With your back turned to the crowd . . . There were people drinkin' whiskey / There were hearts about to leave . . . All the way from Beaumont / With a white rose in my hand / I could not wait forever babe, I hope you understand." That last line, the moment of first knowing he can't wait forever for her, breaks my heart every time.
"Expectations" — Belle & Sebastian
There's misery in this beautiful song that makes me think of Vivvy. Isolated and ostracized, running against social expectations in her singular want for love. She is misunderstood and misunderstands her own self but she keeps on going.
"Jezebel" — Iron & Wine
How can I not see Francie as Jezebel when Sam Beam sings, "Who's seen Jezebel? / She was born to be the woman we could blame / Make me a beast half as brave / I'd be the same." I see Enid and Vivvy, with Sheldon even, and Tate all pleading with Francie: "‘Saying, ‘wait, we swear / We'll love you more and wholly / Jezebel, it's we, we that you are for / Only.'"
"I'm Sticking With You" — The Velvet Underground
This is a song for Enid and Vivvy. No matter what has come before, on Halloween Vivvy and Enid dress up in their mother's cast-off tennis dresses and tippy high heels and go begging for candy. They are sisters, after all, and they stick together.
"You Got It" — Bonnie Raitt
When I hear this song, I can't help but get happy-sad—that ugly cry that feels so good. This is Tate's most important song—the moment he gets it, that his daughters are in desperate need and he must be there: "Anything you want, you got it / Anything you need, you got it / Anything at all, you got it."
"Ripple" — Grateful Dead
Throughout the book, each of the Sobels fights so hard for a love requited, a "Ripple in still water." These are individual and often secret attempts and the characters struggle and fail many times. Jerry Garcia sings, "There is a road, no simple highway / Between the dawn and the dark of night / And if you go no one may follow / That path is for your steps alone." No one else's wisdom can light the way, each of us must walk it alone. What they ultimately find is the kind of pure gift of love and companionship glimpsed in this song. The singers' voices coming together at the end for the "da-da-da"s feel to me like my characters coming back together after their solitary journeys.
Noley Reid and Pretend We Are Lovely links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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weekly music release lists