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July 11, 2013

Book Notes - Sarah Pemberton Strong "The Fainting Room"

The Fainting Room

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sarah Pemberton Strong's The Fainting Room is an impressive literary mystery, a novel that spans genres with ease as it explores the powers of secrets and desire.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Part detective story, part mystery, Strong’s second novel (after Burning the Sea) delivers complex, entertaining characters and will attract readers who enjoy genre-blending, cutting-edge fiction."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Sarah Pemberton Strong's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Fainting Room:


The Fainting Room is set in 1983, and for this playlist I stuck mostly to songs that the characters actually listen to or could have listened to at that time. There are a few tracks from a couple years later that were just too perfect to omit.


"Respectable"—The Rolling Stones

The year I began writing this book, I shared a home in San Francisco with the artist and filmmaker Jeannie Simms, to whom the book is dedicated. We went on a Rolling Stones kick for months and listened to Stones albums over and over, so when I think about the experience of writing The Fainting Room, the music that first comes to mind is from Some Girls, my favorite Stones album. In The Fainting Room, the clash between social classes is a catalyst for much that happens: Ray is a Boston Brahmin who has married Evelyn, a manicurist who grew up in a second-rate traveling circus. Evelyn is obsessed with fitting into Ray's world, making "Respectable" the opening track for this list.


"Jockey Full of Bourbon"—Tom Waits

I first heard this song in 1985, the year I graduated from high school, and fell in love with the album on which it appears, Raindogs, which is the audio equivalent of Evelyn's life before she met Ray. Like the people in Evelyn's traveling circus, Raindogs is populated by a wild cast of characters, all exploding in a carnival atmosphere of showmanship and violent grace. The song "Jockey Full of Bourbon" especially reminds me of the novel's Joe Cullen—sword-swallower, roustabout, and Evelyn's doomed first husband. Every line in this song could be about him.

"Try a Little Tenderness"—Otis Redding

This song could have been written about Evelyn. Both the lyrics and Otis Redding's inimitable voice of soul capture her longing for a kind of love she's never received. "Try a Little Tenderness" partially explains why she falls so hard for Ray.


String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major—Johannes Brahms

This is just one of Ray's favorite pieces of music, masterfully performed—on Ray's LP—by Yehudi Menuhin on violin. Brahms is a master of construction and craftsmanship—qualities Ray greatly admires. This piece is passionate, it is romantic, it is all the lushness, delicacy and beauty Ray has been unable to feel for another person until Evelyn comes into his life. After Ingrid shows up, this music seems darker and more complicated.


"Institutionalized"—Suicidal Tendencies

This came out in 1983, the year The Fainting Room takes place. The character Ingrid is the same age I was that year—sixteen—and this is her favorite Suicidal Tendencies song. It's the screamed chorus of "Institutionalized" that makes Evelyn say, "What the hell is that?" when Ingrid finds it on the car radio (WERS Boston) in the scene where Evelyn is too upset to drive. Evelyn's experience of hearing hardcore for the first time is one of "boys…screaming, and the same drumbeat over and over, harder and more insistent than her own stressed-out heartbeat, and the earsplitting effect was that she couldn't feel her own heart so painfully anymore."


"Guilt"—Marianne Faithfull

The Fainting Room is a novel driven by the powers of desire, secrecy and the imagination. The lyrics of this song—"Though I know I've done no wrong I feel guilt"—and Faithfull's intense performance of it capture our complicated relationship with our private fantasies.


"Polonaise-Fantaisie"—Frédéric Chopin

This piece is on the program when Ray takes Ingrid to Symphony Hall to hear Vladimir Horowitz after his wife refuses to accompany him. Ray is a little too lost in his own fantasies to pay attention, but Ingrid loves it.


"99 Red Balloons" —7 Seconds

American hardcore band covers German pop song about a nuclear war started as the result of defense computer misreading red helium balloons as incoming missiles. This is one of the only songs in Ingrid's hardcore collection that Evelyn likes—the 7 Seconds version makes it all into a party—and it's the song I imagine is playing when Ingrid and Evelyn are at the amusement park in Nantasket.


"Just Like You Said it Would Be"—Sinead O'Connor

When I was writing The Fainting Room, the memory of this song came to me as a touchstone for Ingrid's character. When I first heard it, in 1987, I was struck by how O'Connor's voice was so deeply passionate and so terribly young when she sang/wailed the refrain. That voice is an auditory sample of Ingrid's psyche. Ingrid is so young, and huge emotions are invoked in her. It's too much for her to handle, though she ends up handling it anyway, as we all do.


"California"—Joni Mitchell

There are a lot of songs about California, and this one is probably my favorite. All three of the main characters in this book have a complicated relationship with Southern California, despite Ingrid being the only one who's ever been there. Ray had adolescent fantasies of moving there and becoming a screenwriter, Evelyn reads People magazine and naively longs to go to Hollywood and glimpse the lives of movie stars. Ingrid spent her childhood in "a horrible sprawl of houses that passes for a town" in Orange County, which she associates with nuclear reactors built on the San Andreas Fault, social conformity, and her absent parents. From the wonderful guitar lick that opens Joni Mitchell's song to her soaring repetition of "California, Ca-ah-ah-lifornia!" this song reminds me why "the sunset pig" continues to be worth kissing.


"Bad Reputation"—Joan Jett

This is the answer to the Stones song, "Respectable," and Ingrid's answer to Evelyn's incessant image management:

I don't give a damn
'Bout my bad reputation
I've never been afraid of any deviation
An' I don't really care
If ya think I'm strange
I ain't gonna change
An' I'm never gonna care
'Bout my bad reputation

When I saw Joan Jett perform this in a club in San Francisco in the early nineties, I heard this song as a message to gay kids everywhere. "Bad Reputation" is one of those songs that offers kids a glimpse of other possible ways to live.


Sarah Pemberton Strong and The Fainting Room links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (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
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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