June 28, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Deborah Shapiro's debut The Sun in Your Eyes is an engaging road novel that explores the complexities of female friendship.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Hedonistic rock n' roll road trip [that] hat tips to Thelma and Lousie and High Fidelity...elevated by Shapiro’s sharp writing, layered lead characters, and unexpected turns."
The Sun in Your Eyes is about a lot of things, but it centers on two women – Viv and Lee -- who meet in college in the 90s, and it traces their shared history into their thirties. Lee is the fairly glamorous daughter of Jesse Parrish, a musician, who died when she four; Viv, her more ordinary friend. When the novel begins, they haven't spoken in three years but wind up together again on a road trip, in search of the last, lost album Jesse was recording before his fatal car crash. I imagine Jesse as a singer-songwriter of the 70s but with a kind of glam swagger and sensibility (echoes of David Bowie), who sounds sort of like Alex Chilton. Impossible, I know. But not in fiction! The search takes Lee and Viv from New York City, to the Catskills, to Providence, to Big Sur and Los Angeles, with a lot of music along the way. And a lot of back and forth between the past and the present. Though the following songs aren't necessarily mentioned in the novel, these are ones I turned to repeatedly in trying to create a certain mood and atmosphere.
"Wakin' on a Pretty Day"
I'm pretty sure I first heard this song on a trip to LA, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. And it would have been while I was in the middle of working on this book. The vibe is initially all blue skies and good times but it's a long, hazy song and it has some other things on its mind. We we're driving along the coast, and I was in the passenger seat, looking for Malibu Colony, the beachfront enclave that Robert Altman used as a location in The Long Goodbye. I'm a big Raymond Chandler fan -- he's referenced in the book and in some ways, this whole novel is one long goodbye -- and I love what Altman did with the material in his 1973 film (Elliott Gould as private detective Philip Marlowe is the best). Altman's Los Angeles is very different from Chandler's but they're both incredibly evocative visions/hallucinations of this city where parts of the book take place.
This song reminds me of the golden summer in college, in the mid-90s, when Viv moves in with Lee and Lee's roommate Andy (Andy has unrequited feelings for Lee; years later, Viv and Andy are married). Viv says time moved differently that summer. Days pass slowly with the three of them walking down warm, empty blocks of triple-decker houses. Sitting on a bench in a park with patchy grass, by the harbor in Providence, RI, not doing much besides watching birds on the water.
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart"
There's a 70s meets 90s thing going on in this book and this embodies that in a way, turning Neil Young's waltz of a song into a dance track. Young gets referenced a few times, directly and indirectly in the book – a music critic describes Jesse Parrish as "a lesser, campier Neil Young." Though I love the original, I was introduced to the St. Etienne version first and at the time I don't think I even knew it was a cover. It's the first song on Foxbase Alpha, released in the UK in 1991 (1992 in the US). The cover image is a young woman, standing under leafy trees wearing what looks like a thrifted short sleeve top and a very 90s skirt. Everything about the album is shimmery, summery air through an open window.
There's a scene in the book where Lee recalls regularly going to a diner with Viv as undergrads, where the college radio station is on and it's always playing Spacemen 3's Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. A perfect title that describes exactly what this record sounds like. Driving, repetitive guitar makes it kind of trance-y and shambling, an album to lose yourself in.
Alex Chilton and Big Star aren't mentioned in the book but they're a big presence. Chilton's voice is often how I heard Jesse's voice and "Third/Sister Lovers" is what I listened to when trying to describe "The Garden of Allah," Jesse Parrish's 1974 "breakdown" album. And while writing this book, I often went back to the postcard I have of the William Eggleston photo we were able to use for the cover. It's magic, even if you don't know anything about it. But one of the girls in the shot is Lesa Aldridge, Eggleston's second cousin, who was involved with Chilton and in the making of Third/Sister Lovers. (You can read about the photo here and check out Robert Gordon's book, It Came from Memphis.)
"It's your bicycle bells and your Rembrandt swells, your children alive and still breathing, and your look of loss when you're coming across…" I associate this song with Linda, Lee's force-of-nature mother, a model-turned-fashion designer. Not necessarily as Linda would have been in 1969 when this song was released, but as an older woman whose younger self is still very much a part of her. Lyrically, and with his incomparable croon, Walker brings to mind that world of bohemian royalty which Lee is marginally a part of: wealthy but seemingly laidback young women who do some modeling, some acting, maybe they paint. They get their pictures taken for fashion magazines. There are certain Scott Walker songs from the 60s that feel, to me, like highly condensed versions of James Salter novels. It's the unfailing romanticism and sophistication, and the time period. Nobody writes like James Salter. Except maybe Scott Walker?
"Who Knows Where the Time Goes?"
Another 1969 song. Linda references it at Viv's wedding, along with "Sunrise Sunset," when she's getting sentimental about the passing of time. In their lyrical content, both songs are variations on a theme, but I figured Sandy Denny's gorgeous voice and the folky-feel is a better fit here than the original cast recording from Fiddler on the Roof.
This song is Viv, in her early twenties, on a train or a bus, going from New York, where she is living, to the smaller, more provincial place she grew up. She is staring out the window, headphones on, listening to this on repeat. Wishing she were somewhere else, but not really.
"You and Your Sister"
This Mortal Coil
A friend introduced me to this song one relatively dead afternoon at work, probably around 1999. She downloaded it from Napster (remember?) and I can't recall if she described it as "the saddest song ever" or if that's what I said to her. But that's what it is. And it only gets sadder when you learn more about songwriter Chris Bell. I'm sure Bell's original somehow seeped into my consciousness when creating the character of Jesse Parrish, but this beautiful cover, with Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly on vocals, is so much about Lee and Viv. About being just out of college, in a small room in a big city, hearing a perfect song with your friend.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
I love the downbeat optimism of this one. And at this point, Jesus and Mary Chain songs are so evocative, for me, of a certain kind of coolness that I can be struggling with GPS on a highway in the middle of exurban sprawl and then this comes on and suddenly I'm in a Sofia Coppola movie. Viv and Lee are probably listening to this on the road.
Christine and the Queens
I can't say this song really influenced the writing of this novel, because I didn't hear it until I'd completed the bulk of the book and was working on revisions. But there's a scene where Viv and Lee, in college, go to see an arty, experimental student film ironically set to the theme from Titanic, "My Heart Will Go On." Viv, however, enjoys it pretty unironically. Christine is the Celine Dion I always wanted.
"Well, the old world may be dead, our parents can't understand, but I still have parents, and I still love the old world." At one point, I wanted to use this as an epigraph because of the ambivalence and yearning it captures. The lost time that tugs at Jonathan Richman here is a "50s apartment house, bleak in the 1970s sun," in keeping with the 20-year cycle in which this kind of nostalgia tends to work. If the song's subject matter initially seems conservative and backward-looking, it becomes something more by the end, about wanting it both ways and then saying "bye" to it and moving on.
Deborah Shapiro and The Sun in Your Eyes links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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