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March 2, 2011

Book Notes - Randy Susan Meyers ("The Murderer's Daughters")

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

Randy Susan Meyers' novel The Murderer's Daughters is a powerful examination of the impact of domestic violence on children's lives. Filled with memorable characters and drawn from the author's years of experience working with domestic violence victims and at-risk youth, this is an important book that will linger in your mind long after the final page is turned.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Meyers delivers a clear-eyed, insightful story about domestic violence and survivor's guilt in The Murderer's Daughters. It's an impressively executed novel, disturbing and convincing."

In her own words, here is Randy Susan Meyers' Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Murderer's Daughters:

The Murderer's Daughters examines sisters in crisis. After witnessing their father kill their mother, Lulu and Merry have nothing left but each other. They spend their lives pretending he is dead—but one of them is his reluctant and secret support. The book takes place over 32 years. Music is a marker of both era and emotion.

The book begins in 1971. I imagined the sisters, Lulu, ten, and Merry, five, vaguely conscious of the shake-up music of the time, but unaware of how the world has recently spun on it's axis—because their own world had just crashed and burned—and also because they're still rooted in the music that their parents play.

In the first chapter, just before Lulu's father bullies his way into the house and attacks her mother, Lulu hears "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" coming from a neighbor's radio. This omnipresent bittersweet pop song of the time, is an ominous backdrop to the tragedy unfolding:

Music from Mrs. Schwartz's stereo blasted through the courtyard. Someone had probably told her to shut it off, which usually made Mrs. Schwartz turn it up. "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" played so loud that I missed hearing the first quiet taps on our front door.

I listened to the soundtrack from A Walk On The Moon while writing the first half of The Murderer's Daughters. The movie takes place in 1969—two years before my book opens, but the theme—an unsatisfied wife longing for the freedom of Woodstock Nation, and the husband clueless to his wife's desires echoed for me. The couple in the movies, like the parents in my book, are working class New York City Jewish. The soundtrack straddles the changing times, just as I imagined Lulu and Merry's parents do, young enough to feel the pull of a new era, but old enough that it all feels a bit out of reach.

Though the book moves from 1971 to 2003, the point of view characters, sisters Lulu and Merry, like all of us, are marked by the music of their childhood and teenage years.

After a series of tragic events, Lulu and Merry end up at an orphanage. In the following scene, where they're visiting their too-frail-to-care-for-them grandmother, Lulu is aware of the changing generations in her grandmother's apartment house. As I wrote this, "White Bird" by It's A Beautiful Day played in my head, as that song evokes for me the eerie nature of life changing: Grandma buzzed us in. . . Cabbage and onions fried in chicken fat odors mingled with the smells of patchouli and pot.

Lulu refuses to see her father (in prison) until she's confronted with him (and musical memories of the songs he once sang) at her grandmother's funeral:

"I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair," he sang. I'd forgotten what a nice voice our father had. He'd sung to me when I was little. Never children's songs. He liked to croon, not recite, he'd explain. Don't expect any
"Hickory Dickory Dock" crap from me, he'd say.

At bedtime, he'd sing "Only the Lonely." When Merry was born, "Oh, Pretty Woman" had just come out, and he would go around the house singing that. Hearing Roy Orbison sing always made me think of my father. I turned off the radio whenever one of his songs came up.

Merry's memory of her father also includes music, though Merry, younger, reaches for a softer place to rest her mind. In the following scene, she also remembers her father singing, as she examines her grandmother's photos:

Daddy held me high on his shoulders as Coney Island wind whipped our hair. I looked like a miniature teenager in a tiny bikini. That was the summer before Mama died. Daddy used to sing the itsy bitsy bikini song, substituting red polka dot for yellow, because my bathing suit had red dots. Grandma had laughed when I said that. "How could you remember?" she'd said. "You were just a little pishkelah."

Later, as Lulu plots to have a social worker at the orphanage adopt her and Merry, she plays on the Jewish heritage they and the social worker share by invoking Christian music:

I nodded, letting Mrs. Cohen know how tough it was to be a Jewish kid wearing crinoline and singing "Ave Maria" for the rich women who sponsored Duffy's extras, like jigsaw puzzles for the older girls and Colorforms for the little kids. Sometimes we got Prell shampoo so we didn't have to use the brown castile soap to wash our hair. Oh yeah, the rich women changed our lives.

"It's okay, though," I said, laying it on thick, but hopefully not too thick. "We get fruitcake."

"Fruitcake." Mrs. Cohen rolled her eyes. "You girls need to taste potato latkes and rugelah."

"What are latkes?" I asked, kicking Merry again. Don't tell her about Grandma's latkes.

"That's it. You girls are coming to celebrate Chanukah with my family."

As adults, the sisters turn in different directions. The sexual rhythm of scenes showing Merry involved in her affair with a married man is represented by the smoky classic sounds of Marvin Gaye:

"Leave it." Quinn unwrapped me from my shiny red shirt as though I were a Christmas present. After getting me down to bare skin and lowering me to the bed, he knocked away a pile of books, fumbled around for my tape player, and hit Play, ready to accept any sounds that came on. Marvin Gaye poured out, and I didn't give a damn how obvious the choice sounded. Quinn seeped through my pores and up into my brain, and once again he owned me.

When Merry is confronted by the saccharine song, "Saving All My Love For You"—that popular ode to the married man—she reaches for something harder:

Whitney Houston came on the radio with a song that reminded me too much of Quinn, and I snapped it off, replacing her with a properly bitchy CD from Janet Jackson. Yeah, what have you done for me lately?

The last third of the book takes place in 2002-2003. In this scene, music evokes the post 9-11 mood of the country, as the Merry describes the ultra-liberal neighborhood where she and Lulu live:

The unusual was the usual in Cambridgeport. The marionette lady, who carried wooden puppets to speak for her, lived on one side of us, and a platinum blond drag queen owned the house on the right.

Even more amazing, right here in the heart of Cambridge, we had a Republican. He covered his house with American flags and played "Taps" each night on his front porch. Following September 11 the previous year, our ultraliberal neighborhood had declared a brief détente with the neighborhood Republican.

For a few weeks, everyone gathered by his house at dusk, listening as he played. Now, almost a year later, the neighbors again treated him as a crazy outcast.

As I raced toward the conclusion of The Murderer's Daughters, "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" sung by Judy Collins, vied for space in my heart and head with "We Are Family," sung by Sister Sledge, as my hope for the sister's future and my sadness about their past collided.

These are the songs that have forever entwined me with Merry and Lulu.

Randy Susan Meyers and The Murderer's Daughters links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's collaborative blog
the book's video trailer
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at the Denver Post)

Author Exposure review
Basil & Spice review
Book Addiction review
Book Line and Sinker review
Boston Globe review
Denver Post review
A Few More Pages... review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
The Lost Entwife review
The Little Reader review
Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews review
Tagged & Towed review

Huffington Post contributions by the author
Writer Unboxed interview with 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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