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October 13, 2010

Book Notes - Emily Gray Tedrowe ("Commuters")

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

Emily Grey Tedrowe's debut novel Commuters brings together two families and an ensemble cast of characters with ease, and tells its tale charmingly through three generations of narrators without ever overwhelming the reader. This family drama is endearing and skillfully written, the rare book I can confidently recommend to both my literary friends as well as people looking for a great book club selection.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"In her wonderfully cohesive debut novel, short story writer Tedrowe graduates to elegant novelist with a winding, convincing familial drama about the ties that bind and the bonds that bend to the breaking point . . . The author's deft handling of a large and distinctive cast should win raves from those who revel in this sort of ensemble crazy quilt. A lovely and literate family drama that wins bonus points for its sincerity and open-hearted delivery."

In her own words, here is Emily Gray Tedrowe's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Commuters:

Occasionally, I'm asked about what challenges I faced in writing a novel from the perspective of three characters in different generations. I try to respond with appropriate concern: that this was indeed a serious undertaking and one that I, a first-time novelist, didn't approach lightly. The truth is that I loved exploring life from these very different vantage points—a 78-year-old woman who has just remarried; a midlife mom with financial struggles; a 20-year-old ex-addict chef—and found this particular aspect of writing Commuters easy and fun. Don't get me wrong; there were other parts of the journey so difficult and humbling that I hope to forget about them as soon as possible. But imagining how it might feel to be, well, old—or middle-aged, or 20 again—that was joyful and interesting work.

What I loved about making this playlist was that I got to revisit thinking about those three generations while choosing songs that spoke to where my characters are in their lives during the novel's story. At first I considered only "age-appropriate" music for each character, but then I tossed out that restriction on the theory that good songs are built to transcend their own era. The ones I've picked here are meant to represent an emotion or a longing or a crisis for either Winnie, Rachel, or Avery. In some cases, the same song seemed perfectly suited to each character's concerns—whether old, young, or in-between. Discovering that made me happy, because it reminded me of why I was drawn to write Commuters in the first place.

"Can't Help Falling in Love," Elvis

This isn't what Winnie and her brand-new 80-year-old husband Jerry dance to at their wedding—maybe the melancholy lyrics cut too close to home. After knowing Jerry for only three months before their marriage, Winnie must understand that to take his hand means taking his whole life, too—however short their time together might be.

"Hormones," Tracey Thorn

On the surface, it's a funny ditty about the trials of mothering teenage daughters. But this song, sly and wry, is what I imagine Rachel's inner voice sounds like, if she were to contemplate the mingled sorrow and fear and humor of her own aging and her daughters' blooming. "I must admit / That dress looks better on you now."

"Kathleen," Josh Ritter

Contender for a top prize in the crowded field of Love-Struck Longing, Popular Music Division. When I first heard this, I remember thinking, boy adores girl from afar, fine—but there's not much to it, is there? So wrong, so very wrong. A radiant song that captures Avery's pell-mell love for Nona, his willingness to risk heartbreak and loss of face, and that only-at-20 belief that all of life is still in front of you.

"I Like It," Dixie Chicks

According to her daughter, one of Winnie's "best, and most infuriating, qualities was a blithe disregard for what other people think." This irresistible Dixie Chicks song is a full-throated celebration of love and life—"gonna live it up this time / and dance like the song is never ending"—in the way that Winnie doesn't care what her small town thinks about her unconventional love. I like to think that Natalie Maines and Winnie are kindred spirits.

"Crash Years," The New Pornographers

Okay, perhaps I chose this because I'm slightly obsessed with the new NP album. But it does speak to the sense of desperation in Rachel, who is scrambling to keep up appearances in town amid her family's financial slide. These are definitely her crash years. Rachel's anger often expresses itself in sarcasm, the half-joking terror of someone who sees her own failings but can do little about them.

"I'm Waiting For The Man," Velvet Underground

In Commuters, Avery's drug use and rehab experiences are in the recent past, but they inform most of his decisions and his relationships. Having dodged this particular bullet, Avery wrestles with how much to tell people—his lover Nona, his grandfather Jerry—about what he's been through. He worries about their reaction; he's sick of dragging his own reputation around. Will his new life in New York allow him any kind of reprieve from the weight of his mistakes?

"They Can't Take That Away From Me," Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

This song kills me, from the ominous, unspecified "they" to the heartbreaking rhyme "the way you hold your knife / the way you changed my life." (Also see the cover photo on the glorious "Ella and Louis" album for a sweetly unforgettable image.) What Winnie chooses to do at the end of the novel, regarding Jerry's illness, is much debated by various family members: it is generous? Fearful? Noble? Doesn't matter to Winnie, what they think. In her memories, she has what's real.

"Build That Wall," Aimee Mann

Rachel's relationship with her husband Bob has grown tense and strained. Many times she can't seem to find a way through her own defenses to connect with him, even when she wants to. While this song is quintessential Aimee Mann pessimism, I can't help but detect a faint light of hope, or at least its possibility: "maybe it's one where time will tell." (Then again, "maybe it's one where it's just fare-thee-well.")

"Making Plans," Dolly Parton

At first, it seems ridiculous to assign an early-80's Dolly Parton song to Avery, who depends heavily on his hipster cred, but I'll risk it. This standard about grief over a lover's leaving, especially in Dolly's aching rendition, hits home for Avery in the worst moments of his loss. I picture him refusing to listen all the way through, not because he scoffs, but because he can't bear to.

"Beyond the Horizon," Bob Dylan

In the last pages of the novel, each character confronts a changed life because of Winnie's decision to marry Jerry. For this playlist's last song, I wanted to end with a favorite gentle ballad of Dylan's. Whether in their 20s or their 70s, the worlds of Winnie, Rachel, and Avery are consumed by love—its torments, glories, and evolution—and this theme above all resonates throughout Commuters: "the bells of St. Mary, how sweetly they chime / Beyond the horizon, I found you just in time."

Emily Gray Tedrowe and Commuters links:

the author's website

Booksie's Blog review
Bookstack review
Builder of Worlds review
Chaotic Compendiums review
Chicago Tribune review
Devourer of Books review
A Garden Carried in the Pocket review
Hey, I Want to Read That! review
Life Is a Patchwork Quilt review
Lit*chick review
My Random Acts of Reading review
New York Journal of Books review
PopMatters review
Sara's Organized Chaos review
Take Me Away review
'Til We Read Again review

Newcity Lit profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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