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April 22, 2016

Book Notes - Domnica Radulescu "Country of Red Azaleas"

Country of Red Azaleas

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Domnica Radulescu's Country of Red Azaleas is a poignant nocel of friendship and resilience.

BookPage wrote of the book:

"A tightly wrought, beautiful story of friendship...Radulescu creates images that lodge themselves firmly in your consciousness, giving you ideas to ponder long after you turn the final page. In the tradition of Elena Ferrante and Khaled Hosseini, Country of Red Azaleas prevails as a true testament to a bond that transcends the devastation of war."

In her own words, here is Domnica Radulescu's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Country of Red Azaleas:

Movies and music in my novel Country of Red Azaleas often function as either symbolic reflections or ironic commentaries for the characters or their actions, their psychology and life journeys.

The recurrent song in the novel is the theme from the film Doctor Zhivago, "Somewhere my Love," which I included to serve as an underlying refrain throughout the book. This refrain parallels a continuous and often insatiable search and need for love that drives the two protagonists Lara and Marija. Doctor Zhivago is the favorite movie of Lara's parents to the point where they named their daughter after the female protagonist. This melody recurs many times throughout the book as Lara remembers her parents dancing to it in their Belgrade apartment, enraptured with each other and dreaming of a world away from communist Yugoslavia and the new Serbia at war with its neighbors. Lara mocks her parents' sentimentality and feels almost resentful of their great love for one another. But she is also burdened by an unattainable image of romantic life that she will never manage to achieve with another man. There is one instance at the beginning of the novel when the Zhivago theme is of particular symbolic importance – when Mark, Lara's future husband visits her parents to ask for her hand in marriage. Lara's mother plays the song and Mark dances with her around the kitchen as Lara watches with admiration. It is as if that overly romantic image of love is passed on from her mother to her husband and thus obliquely on to her. Sadly, Lara will not find that kind of love with Mark but only an initial illusion of it.

The relationship between Lara and Marija is a complex and many sided one that includes intellectual, artistic, emotional levels but also a romantic or erotic dimension. Growing up together towards the end of the Tito era and the beginning of the war of the nineties era, they incorporate a lot of western values in their attitudes and thinking—love of American and western music, philosophies and ideas of women's emancipation, of democracy and an overall rebellion against the traditional and nationalistic elements in their own society and country. I write in the novel that they listened to Dire Straits and imagine them liking "Money for Nothing" and "Romeo and Juliet." The latter especially, though inspired by one of the most passionate and tragic love stories in the world, is a modern interpretation of the story by Dire Straits and has a gritty and raw element which coincides with the two women's rebellion, as well as the indestructible love for one another at this violent and ugly time in history.

The music of The Doors is mentioned when Lara visits Mark at his apartment in Belgrade the first night they meet. Out of a desire to immerse himself in the local culture Mark has an impressive collection of Serbian pop music in his apartment and hopes to impress her, but Lara doesn't care about Serbian music and asks him to play American music which Mark has an equally large collection of. Though no particular song is mentioned, I imagine them dancing to the song "People are Strange" by The Doors which is sultry and sexy with a tinge of ironic romanticism. The lyrics are also in tune with Lara as she starts experiencing a sense of alienation from her own country and is drawn to the strangeness of an American man and all that that entails for her and her future.

An important mention of a particular American song is Maria's "I Feel Pretty" from the West Side Story movie, another story of star crossed lovers in the Romeo and Juliet model. This time it is Lara's sister Biljana, who saunters into the living room of their parents' apartment the night before the beginning of the Bosnian war when Lara and Marija are visiting after an eventful and violent night in a Belgrade tavern. Marija is cynical and makes sarcastic comments about the story to Biljana's irritation. There is also a hidden reason why Marija is cynical towards the overly romanticized love stories of Hollywood movies, all while being a great lover of such movies, in particular Casablanca. The symbolism of the mention of the West Side Story movie and song is trifold: it anticipates a future filled with lost love, gained love, violence and suffering for all three young women in the room who each have their own reasons to "feel pretty oh so pretty," young and full of hope as the Maria in the movie does.

The classical music in my book underscores both Lara and Marija's happiest years as well as some of the most tragic and wrenching moments in Marija's journey. Her father was a flute player and his music transported Lara to paradise whenever she visited. She remembers how the "flute music rose in such delicate melodic trills that it made you want to slide out of your body and glide through the open window and into the blue ether." This corresponds to the happiest times in the girls' lives that they will always look back at with painful nostalgia. Furthermore, towards the end of the book Marija remembers a time during the Sarajevo siege when her father and a group of artist friends got together in the basement of her friend Frida's apartment and played all the waltzes they remembered as a gesture of defiance against the war and as a poignant statement of art, beauty and love prevailing over darkness and violence. Ravel's music is present as well, in a scene during one Christmas season when Lara's and Biljana's daughters perform a reenactment of Orpheus and Eurydice during their family reunion in Lara's and Mark's apartment in Washington DC. The Orpheus and Eurydice story is very important because Orpheus loses Eurydice to death, then brings her back from the dead with the power of his music and then loses her again. Similarly Lara and Marija almost lose each other and find each other after Marija, like Euridyce of the myth to some degree, visits places as dark as the realm of the dead and returns from them transformed. And finally, Marija will later remember the last night her father played from his classical repertoire before her parents are brutally killed by Serbian soldiers. Thus waltzes which are a joyous type of classical music, Ravel, a melancholy and darker type of classical modern music function as metaphors of beauty, love and art that emerge from the deepest human suffering both as a distillation of that suffering and an attempt to transcend it.

The last mention to music in the novel is when Marija is singing Serbian songs from her youth to Lara's great dismay, given the violence that her friend had suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers. With this music the characters reconnect with their youth and native land from a place of survival but also as some sort of closure. The Serbian songs, which as Marija points out, had once belonged to Serbs, Bosnians, everybody living in former Yugoslavia, also play a part in actually saving her life. The woman who helped her survive after her traumatic experiences sang Serbian songs in order to be taken for Serbian by the soldiers as the two women were on the run. This episode is inspired by the true story of a Bosnian woman who survived the capture by acting mad and singing Serbian songs for the entire period of her captivity. There is great tragic irony here that the music of those who hurt her so badly also saved her. This also offers a moving example of the independence of art, in this case music, and its power to move, influence emotions and even actions and rise above hatred.

The diversity of the music referenced in my novel, from the theme song of a famous Hollywood movie to very specific Balkan folklore reflects the journey that the two heroines undergo across continents, historical periods, cultures, and geographies as well as a symbolic map of their psychological transformations. There is one song that played in my mind constantly while I was inspired to write the ending of the novel, and that is Etta James's "At Last," as the heroines reunite in the end. It inspired the writing though it is absent from the actual scene and for some reason it rang in my head while I was myself traveling through the Bosnian landscapes near Srebrenica that had been the sites of the war. I was allowing myself to be imbued with the sites and atmosphere that my characters had lived in when I felt the irresistible and overpowering love between the heroines that, in the end, overcomes all obstacles and comes into its own all while carrying the full burden of their broken yet reinvented lives. I wanted that last scene to express in images and words what this song expresses with melody without any mention of the actual music.

Domnica Radulescu and Country of Red Azaleas links:

the author's website

Associated Press review
BookPage review
Washington Independent Review of Books review

Augusta Free Press profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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