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April 30, 2014

Book Notes - Jan Elizabeth Watson "What Has Become of You"

What Has Become of You

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.

Jan Elizabeth Watson's What Has Become of You is an engrossing and haunting literary thriller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Watson's twisty plot speeds with page-turning momentum, but what's likely to stick with you are the complex characters...who are, by turns, vulnerable, flawed, and surprising, bravely struggling to rewrite the stories of their lives."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Jan Elizabeth Watson's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, What Has Become of You:

It is not often that one encounters a novel of psychological suspense that also satisfies readers of literary fiction, but this is exactly the balance I attempted to strike in What Has Become of You. In crafting the playlist below, I envisioned a soundtrack that would follow the novel's emotional ebbs and flows and encapsulate its characters in a meaningful way. The result, I think, it a tense, atmospheric playlist with a few unexpected notes of whimsy thrown in to keep listeners on their toes, much as the novel itself is a series of curveballs. Some of the songs were tracks I had in mind when creating the narrative; others fell into place a little later. All things considered, I don't think it is too much of a leap to say that creating a list is not unlike the act of writing a novel; in both cases one strives for cohesion and offers the audience something to get lost in, if they so choose.

1. "Vera," by Pink Floyd
I have always thought that Roger Waters' a capella voice brokenly asking Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?, followed by the swell of violins, is one of the most beautiful and arresting openings in any piece of modern music. It is from this short song—clocking in at well under two minutes—that What Has Become of You gets its title. The singer, coming as he does from a postwar world of loss and grief, laments the passage of a more innocent time when singer Vera Lynn promised that ‘we will meet again some sunny day.' The fact that What Has Become of You's protagonist is named Vera is merely a happy coincidence, as her name came before the title did; however, not unlike the singer, Vera also yearns for a more innocent time and cannot quite let go of her ravaged youth.

2. "The Professor and La Fille Danse," by Damien Rice
This song represents the mindset of Vera, a former adjunct professor turned prep school teacher who has a history of poor decision-making and is destined to repeat this pattern—sometimes with horrific results— throughout the duration of the novel. Damien Rice's song appears at first glance to express a man's regret at a failed relationship, but over the years it has come to mean different things to me at different times. It hints at the the larger issue of adult fallibility and regret and the general mistakes we can't help making. The last portion of the song, "La Fille Danse," is a beautiful stretch sung in French that calls to mind the purity of a young girl—in this particular case, the girls whom Vera are introduced to in her first morning class in Chapter One of the novel: La fille danse/Quand elle joue avec moi/Et je pense que je l'aime des fois, which roughly translates to The girl dances/when she plays with me/And I think I love her sometimes… In a purely innocent yet disquieting way, What Has Become of You is a love story of sorts between Vera Lundy and her fifteen-year-old pupil Jensen Willard.

3. "Little 15," by Depeche Mode
I mentioned earlier that the title What Has Become of You was derived from Pink Floyd's "Vera," but it is interesting to note that the book's original title was actually Little 15, from the Depeche Mode song of the same name. (In a case of art imitating life—or maybe art imitating art—it may also be worth noting that "Little 15" almost didn't make it on to Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses album.) The would-be title refers to star pupil Jensen Willard, age 15, whose journals reveal a dark, acerbic nature and a great deal of longing that Vera finds herself identifying with. Originally, a key lyric from this song was quoted in an early version of the manuscript: She wants to see with your eyes/She wants to smile with your smile/She wants a nice surprise every once in a while/Little 15. Listening to Dave Grahan sing these moody lines in my own youth, I was often struck with the thought that the ‘nice surprise' that teenaged girl wanted might not be so nice, after all.

4. "Who by Fire," by Leonard Cohen
Though this song has been around for many years, I only happened upon it recently, and the mood and sound made me think of What Has Become of You at once. Based in part on a traditional Jewish prayer, the melody has both a driving force and a haunting quality; the refrain And who shall I say is calling? seems to linger in the air like a challenge or an omen. I can imagine this song playing in the background as Vera becomes immersed in the journals of Jensen Willard and catches glimpses of her younger self, waxing and waning as though seen through a flickering flame.

5. "Sour Times," by Portishead
In Jensen Willard's journals she reveals glimpses of her relationship with a distant boy named Bret Folger, who ‘loves her for her mind' but otherwise shows her no passion. Bret's devotion becomes a source of obsession for Jensen, even though she has misgivings about him; she inwardly tortures herself for being so needy, for wanting his constant validation. Bret's emotional and geographical distance makes Jensen feel like more of unlovable misfit than ever, and this song captures that feeling to a tee. The song also has an inherent sense of menace that suggests there are sinister things to come.

6. "Them There Eyes," by Billie Holiday
An upbeat song by Billie Holiday—and she did not have many of them—almost seems like a perverse thing in and of itself, for you can still here the tear in her voice even in this lilting melody; it is, after all, still Billie Holiday. This song dovetails with a scene in What Has Become of You where Vera goes to her favorite bar and hears a jazz band playing; though not directly referenced in the book, I imagine that this is the song she hears—a song so capricious and deceptively light that it leads her toward a fateful decision. They're gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble indeed…

7. "No One Knows I'm Gone," by Tom Waits
Tom Waits has many beautiful songs, and this short, dirge-like tune is arguably among his most heartbreaking. Coming on the heels of Billie Holiday's ebullience, this song reflects a turn in the narrative where things have become considerably darker.

8. "Headlights," by Sophie Hunger
This wistful, almost elegiac song continues the mood established by the Tom Waits song and reflects Vera's continuing obsession with her student Jensen Willard—an obsession that sets her off on a misguided path to with the intention of setting things to rights. It also represents the enmeshment Vera has come to feel with her student: Caught in your Headlights/I couldn't turn back/I was not myself/I was you/I forgot.

9. "Death Is Not the End," by Nick Cave and Friends
This song almost sounds like something that participants of a wake would sing after its party has repaired to the local pub and tossed back a Guinness or ten. Though somber in its subject matter—it is a reflection on death and what comes after death—there is something quirky about this chorus of voices intoning the refrain, and the listener manages to feel unnerved and oddly reassured at the same time. It is exactly the sort of mood that makes this a just-right pick for the penultimate song in What Has Become of You's playlist.

10. "Candy Says," by The Velvet Underground
On a personal note, this is probably my favorite lyric of all time. By the time the reader has reached the close of What Has Become of You, it will be clear how the chorus applies to both our primary characters, but I will leave you with these words to think about:

I'm gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder
I'm gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I'm older
What do you think I'd see
If I could walk away from me?

Jan Elizabeth Watson and O, Democracy! links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Asta in the Wings

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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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