July 1, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Chris Cander's novel A Gracious Neighbor is smart and compelling.
Margot Livesey wrote of the book:
"I couldn’t stop turning these witty, suspenseful pages. What new lengths would the endearing and exasperating Martha go to in her pursuit of friendship? This is a sparkling and deeply satisfying novel."
There are only three named songs in A Gracious Neighbor: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Martha My Dear” by the Beatles, and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and in spite of the fact that my main characters, Martha and Minnie, both visual artists, met in choir class in high school, neither of them can sing. Yet this lack of musicality in the story, which was actually a first for me, didn’t preclude me from compiling this list of songs to accompany the novel’s themes.
1. “Ballad of Lucy Jordan” by Marianne Faithful. Written by one of my literary heroes, the American poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein, this song depicts the disillusionment and mental deterioration of a thirty-seven-year-old suburban housewife in a white suburban bedroom in a white suburban town / As she lay there 'neath the covers dreaming. My protagonists, Martha Hale and Minnie Wright, both thirty-eight, live next door to each other and at the same time so far apart, and are going through different kinds of the very same things. Though their outcomes don’t exactly parallel hers, I can see some of Martha and Minnie in Lucy Jordan’s haunting trajectory.
2. “When Doves Cry” by Prince and the Revolution. Though Prince was notoriously private about his childhood, it’s been suggested that his father was abusive toward his mother. In these allegedly autobiographical lyrics, in which the singer expresses fear that his then-relationship would turn out like his parents’, the sound of doves crying refers to what happens when love becomes tumultuous. Prince used a recording of a cross-stick snare drum for the percussion in this song, in which he tapped the rim instead of the drumhead, then tuned it down an octave to give it a knocking sound that could be interpreted as a double-entendre. In Minnie’s marriage, the dove is actually a pet parakeet named Bonnie. At the end, what happens to Bonnie is far worse than mere crying.
3. “Get Out of My House” by Kate Bush. In Kate Bush’s disturbing song, which was influenced by Stephen King’s novel The Shining, the house is a metaphor for the hurt, isolated, and anxious person living inside it. There are two distinct voices in the song: the narrator’s external one and the shrieking internal one amplifying her anguish. This echoes a major theme of A Gracious Neighbor—questioning what we really know about the people around us. Martha, the story’s eager, yearning outsider, discovers through a series of surreptitious break-ins that there are secrets and darkness, insecurities and shame lurking inside her neighbor Minnie's beautiful house. The lyrics I will not let you in!...I can turn into a bird is an eerie reflection of Minnie’s mindset.
4. “Behind the Wall” by Tracy Chapman. This chilling, vocals-only ballad speaks to the reticence of people—neighbors, strangers, law enforcement—not only to interrupt but even to acknowledge evidence of domestic violence. People and the police often claim, “They can't interfere / With domestic affairs, / Between a man and his wife.”—until someone ends up dead.
5. “Neighbor, Neighbor” by ZZ Top. Neighbor, neighbor, why you messin' in my life? The opening line of this song by this beloved, Houston-based band perfectly encapsulates the messy, complicated relationships among the Houston-based residents in A Gracious Neighbor. A neighbor, neighbor, tellin' lies and talkin' loud. / You better watch your step now. / You might fall off your cloud. Yes, indeed.
6. “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday. Gossip and its offspring: judgment, misunderstanding, ostracism, secrets, and shame are omnipresent in A Gracious Neighbor. The title of this pop hit certainly warns of the dangers of igniting rumors, but the lyrics hint at something darker. The singer relays her lover’s emotional distance with He wants me, but only part of the time, and his potential abuse with He wants me, if he can keep me in line. As the song evolves, his concern about the gossip their relationship might inspire becomes castigation from Hush to keep it down now to shut up now. At his demand, she tries to hide her tears and keep everything inside, and the song ends with a final, defeated line, I wish he would let me talk. John’s alleged mistress remains off the page, but if she exists, I wonder if this is how she’d feel.
7. “Caged Bird” by Alicia Keys. Undoubtedly inspired by the magnificent 1969 autobiography of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this short, beautiful song gives voice to the feelings of being misunderstood and oppressed while simultaneously denying them. They don't know how I feel inside / Through my smile, I cry. Minnie, who allows her pet parakeet to fly free when her husband isn’t home but locks her up when he returns, is both the caged bird and the one who enables the caging.
8. “Shake it Out” by Florence and the Machine. A Gracious Neighbor is told entirely from Martha’s POV, and we only learn about what’s going on in Minnie’s life through her interactions with Martha. However, if she were to sing about her mindset just before her final, fatal days with John (not that she could; she had no talent for singing), this could be her anthem. And every demon wants his pound of flesh / But I like to keep some things to myself / I like to keep my issues drawn / It's always darkest before the dawn.
9. “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley. Elvis’ version of this romantic melody became his final No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Though it was inspired by its author Mark James’s actual love triangle, the lyrics are relevant to other mistrusting and dysfunctional relationships in which one person feels entrapped by the emotions they have for another. Readers of A Gracious Neighbor might wonder why Minnie stays with John as long as she does, and this song may offer one possible explanation.
10. “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. If Martha was a riot grrl, she’d be screaming the lyrics to this electrifying grunge/punk hit from 1993. The song is a battle-crying manifesto calling for sisterhood and girl-gang power in the kind of (usually male-dominated) society that pits women against each other. It’s easy to imagine Martha making this declaration of friendship for Minnie: That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood / She's got the hottest trike in town / That girl, she holds her head up so high / I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah.
11. “Gallery Piece” by Of Montreal. As Martha’s relationship with the women in her affluent neighborhood falters, her own family life frays at the edges, and her loneliness becomes more palpable, Martha finds her enchantment with Minnie's life growing. What begins as a "good deed" to retrieve a lurid tape and save Minnie's reputation soon becomes an implacable obsession. This song unscrolls a list of hysteric desires one person has for another, and while Martha’s toward Minnie aren’t quite as disturbing, there’s a kind of single-mindedness to this track that mirrors Martha’s touch of psychoneurosis.
12. “Martha My Dear” by The Beatles. When Martha is a sophomore in high school, a cute boy asks her about her name. She says, “When my mom was like sixteen and a half, the White Album came out and she loved the song ‘Martha My Dear’ so much she decided if she ever had a daughter, she would name her that because she’d want someone to love her as much as the Martha in the song.” That boy and his friends then humiliate her by telling her the (truthful) history of the song, which is that Paul McCartney wrote it about his beloved, eponymous English sheepdog. Later “that afternoon, she’d asked her mother about the origin of her name. Evelyn said, ‘Don’t be silly, honey. Who would write a love song to a dog?’”
13. “Denim and Rhinestones” by Carrie Underwood. This song is cutesy country at a full gallop, but the upbeat, hopeful lyrics and mood totally reflect Martha’s excitement about the upcoming little league gala. Like a classic jean jacket / Sparkle on the back, gotta have it / So good, so right, you can't go wrong when you slip it on. Once Martha arrives, however, “she realized that her interpretation of the gala theme, ‘Smart Denim,’ was perhaps a bit too literal. She’d opted for a full denim skirt that she thought looked festive and one of Lewis’s old Middlebury College t-shirts—the ‘smart’ part of her ensemble—which she’d cut into a V-neck and decorated with rhinestones.” This fashion faux pas is just one of many examples of how she never quite fits in with her community.
14. “Pearl Necklace” by ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons and I attended the same high school, Robert E. Lee (now renamed Margaret Wisdom) a couple of decades apart. Twelve years after me, Martha and Minnie also graduated from Lee, which in the novel is called Stonewall Jackson. Fairly early in the book, there’s an awkward scene between Martha and her husband, Lewis on the night of their sixteenth wedding anniversary. Earlier that day, she’d stolen and watched a video featuring a particular sex act between her neighbors. Hoping to increase Lewis’s waning passion, Martha says, “Lewis, I want you to give me a pearl necklace.” But his deflating reaction makes her realize that her request sounded more vulgar than erotic.
15. “Blessed are the Merciful” by The Porter’s Gate. This gospel is the first track on the album Neighbor Songs. The epigraph of A Gracious Neighbor is a four-part definition of the word “gracious,” the fourth being “merciful or compassionate.” For all her foibles and missteps, Martha is nothing if not gracious, especially by that final definition. This lovely song exalts those whose hearts are striving: Blessed are the merciful / For they shall receive mercy, mercy.
16. “Houston” by Allah Las. This moody instrumental from the album LAHS was released on October 11, 2019, which was four months and a day after the final scene in A Gracious Neighbor took place. I’ve thought a lot about what happened to and between Martha and Minnie after the written narrative ended. This song sounds like an ellipsis after the end, which seems like the perfect final song on the novel’s soundtrack.
🎼: I’d like to give a grateful shout-out to my sisters in music appreciation, Heather Montoya and Kristi Foye for their suggestions for this list. They also provided so much support during the writing of A Gracious Neighbor that I named a fictional gallery after them: the Montoya-Foye Gallery.
Chris Cander is the USA Today bestselling author of the novels The Weight of a Piano, which was named an Indie Next Great Read; Whisper Hollow, also named an Indie Next Great Read, longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, and a nominee for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction; and 11 Stories, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books of 2013, the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award for Fiction, and a USA Best Book Award finalist. She is also the author of the Audible Original Stories Eddies and Grieving Conversations. Cander's fiction has been published in twelve languages. She lives in her native Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children. For more information, visit www.chriscander.com.