July 7, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Robin Wasserman's novel Mother Daughter Widow Wife is a brilliant exploration of identity through the lens of a literary thriller.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Wasserman asks big questions about how well we can really know another person, the nature of truth as it relates to memory, and what this all means for how we perceive ourselves... [the novel] ultimately has some great twists and all those questions Wasserman raises make it an excellent book discussion choice"
“The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 – Fuga a 3 Soggetti” (aka The Unfinished Fugue), Johann Sebastian Bach
I’ve never worked on a book that transformed itself as often and as thoroughly as this one did—maybe because as I was writing and rewriting it, my own life transformed itself in a variety of (geographical, professional, exhaustingly existential) ways. But at least one thing stayed consistent from the first scribblings in my notebook through the final proofread: I wanted to write a book about a psychological fugue in the form of a musical one.
Both terms come from the same root, fuga—which can mean flight, or the act of fleeing. A woman in a fugue state is a woman fleeing her identity, her memory, herself. Fleeing, sometimes, literally—one of the strange characteristics of a fugue is the impulse to wander, putting as much distance as possible between the body and its former life. In a musical fugue, it’s the melodies that take flight, fleeing from and chasing each other, different voices in different keys pursuing infinite variations of the same tune. I loved the idea that both kinds of fugue asked the same question: How much can something change before it becomes something else entirely?
Like a fugue, Mother Daughter Widow Wife is a story told in different voices, in different keys (ie different time periods), its four women deliberate echoes of each other, their stories all about flight and pursuit and the search for some immutable self. Like Bach’s The Art of Fugue—a piece which is woven through all four women’s lives—the novel plays out in fourteen sections, the voices sometimes in harmony and sometimes in counterpoint. (Unlike The Art of Fugue, it alas has no interstitial canons, because I slaughtered those darlings in the final draft.) The fourteenth fugue in Bach’s piece was famously left unfinished, and while this is a mystery with a likely mundane solution (aging composer, bad eyesight, etc), I like the theory that it was left unfinished as a deliberate challenge: to the listener, to future composers, maybe to the idea of finitude itself.
“Jessie’s Girl,” Rick Springfield
A thing I say about myself a lot (usually on first dates): I’m not a music person. Which isn’t to say I never listen to music, and certainly not that I hate it. It’s more a warning (especially to would-be suitors with High Fidelity-esque pride in their vinyl collections) that pretty much everyone who has what’s culturally agreed on as good taste in music would agree that mine is very, very bad.
File this one under “write what you know”: This novel is in part about a collision between high and (so-called) low culture, between pretension and the aggressive lack thereof. It’s about the anxiety of navigating between the two—and bearing the judgment of either. Which is to say, while there’s a Bach fugue that winds through all the storylines, there’s also a soap opera—a choice inspired by my own unabashed (but much judged) love for General Hospital. Hence Rick Springfield’s finest scoring a slot on this playlist, in honor of his turn and eventual return as the dashing GH doctor Noah Drake.
“Do You Love Me,” The Contours
Mother Daughter Widow Wife is the first fiction I’ve ever set in Philadelphia—and specifically in a Philadelphia suburb based on the one in which I grew up. The soundtrack of my childhood was largely set to Billy Joel (see below), but my father’s Philadelphia—and there are a lot of ways in which my father is the invisible heart of this book—was the Philadelphia of WOGL, Oldies 98. “Do You Love Me” was playing constantly on the car radio when I grew up (not to mention on my well-worn cassette tape of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). But the best argument for this song’s appearance on this playlist is its cameo in the seen-by-no-one-but-me movie The In Crowd. This was a late ‘80s movie that was basically Hairspray without any of the camp, wit, or political relevance—but it was filmed in my neighborhood, in a house down the street, and thus was the most exciting thing that had happened in my ten-year-old life and is now a time capsule of a home I never quite believed I’d grow up and leave behind.
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Billy Joel
To be clear: I’m not one of those Billy Joel fans who argues for various B-side non-hits that somehow transcend the middlebrow. I was a nerdy, Jewish, suburban kid who grew up with one Billy Joel album: The Greatest Hits (volumes 1 and 2, of course). My first ever concert was a Billy Joel concert, which I attended with my parents. Toss in some Broadway musicals and you know pretty much everything there is to know about my childhood. Which means that all I need to channel those memories—and to channel a character forced to swim in those memories, whether she wants to or not—is the opening drumbeat of this, my very first favorite song.
“I Hear the Bells,” Mike Doughty
This novel is in no way autobiographical, except of course for all the ways it’s autobiographical. One of its main characters is an LA graduate student in exile on the east coast, longing for the west coast she’s left behind. Which was a slightly strange fictional mood to slip into, as I am a grad school drop-out who largely dropped out because I spent my grad school years in miserable exile in LA, longing to go back east. (Even stranger: By the time I was revising the book, I had moved back to LA and was once again direly homesick for the coast I’d left behind.) That said, grad school had its glimmers of joy, and at least in my memory, most of them were set to this song. I’m sure it’s only once that I drove up the PCH, windows down, ocean glittering, freeway and possibility unspooling ahead, heart and very off-key voice singing along with this joyous chorus, but every time I hear the song, I’m back there all over again.
“Rabbit Hole,” Jenny Lewis
This is a book about memory, so maybe it makes sense that most of my choices here are songs that evoke some piece of my past. But this one is about the present I was rooted in as I revised and revised…and revised. Just after finishing the first draft, I moved from New York to LA, and in some ways it feels like all I did for the next couple years was bang my head against this book—and listen to Jenny Lewis. I’ve always vaguely liked Rilo Kiley (and obviously worship Troop Beverly Hills). But The Voyager and On the Line, Lewis’s last two solo albums, have turned me into an embarrassing fangirl who says things like, “It’s as if she’s singing my soul!” and secretly thinks we’re destined to be friends. “Rabbit Hole” is about a woman who—like many of the characters in the novel—is determined to stop making bad decisions for herself. It’s got an upbeat melody that belies what seems to be inevitable failure, but also gets at something it took me several drafts of the novel to figure out: there can be joy in even the worst decisions. That’s presumably why it’s so hard not to make them.
“Feels Blind,” Bikini Kill
This one’s s bit of a cheat, as it also appeared on my playlist for my last novel, Girls on Fire. This song became my anthem for the years I was first drafting the new one, 2016-18. I began Mother Daughter Widow Wife somewhere around the inauguration, really hit my stride during the Weinstein revelations and the rise of #metoo, and sent a first draft to my agent during the summer of Kavanagh. “I’m the woman I was taught to always be: hungry / Yeah women are well acquainted with thirst / Well, I could eat just about anything / We might even eat your hate up like love.” We Eat Your Hate Like Love was an early working title for this book—which is to say that I drafted it in a fugue of Riot Grrrl rage. I’m told the draft read accordingly…
“Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen and “Wise Up,” Aimee Mann
If I drafted from a place of rage, I revised in a place of increased cynicism but also increased sympathy for my characters, even the ones of whom I strongly disapproved. The world is fucked up, these songs remind us, and there’s pain in that, but also beauty and love and need. I hadn’t even realized I was judging my characters so harshly until an early reader pointed it out. The world is fucked up, Leonard Cohen and Aimee Mann both remind us—you are fucked up, but they get it. And maybe that’s just how it goes.
“Love,” Lana Del Rey
I get almost all music I love from friends’ recommendations. I discovered this song thanks to the writer Adam Wilson (also responsible for introducing me to Jenny Lewis). Adam, who made me the greatest of holy-shit-you-live-in-LA-now mixtapes (and whose ridiculously good book Sensation Machines comes out the same day as mine), warned me that this was a song I’d never want to stop listening to and he was right. It’s as full of melancholy as it is possibility. It’s the sound of having endured something and making to the other side—the sound of the feeling I wanted to conjure for the women of Mother Daughter Widow Wife (and the readers who made it through with them) as they reached the final lines of the book.
Robin Wasserman is the author of Girls on Fire, an NPR and BuzzFeed Best Book of the Year. She is a graduate of Harvard College with a Master’s in the history of science. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for television.