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June 1, 2017

Book Notes - Sarah Moriarty "North Haven"

North Haven

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.

Sarah Moriarty's novel North Haven is a lyrical and moving debut.


In her own words, here is Sarah Moriarty's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel North Haven:



There is a magical place on an island in Maine that feels outside of time. It is a house, a porch, mossy paths through woods, a dirt road, blueberry bushes, rocks, lichen, a dock, a float, a dinghy—all these things are unchanged. When the Willoughby kids are there, they too haven't aged despite the passing of decades. In that house the past and present, their memories and actions, exist simultaneously. Tom, Gwen, Libby, and Danny are not only in their thirties (and twenties, in Danny's case), but they are five, ten, and 12 listening to their parents break china. They are 10, 15, and 17, trying to understand their own sexuality while the existence of it must be totally denied. Danny is a tendril growing unchecked inside their mother. Their parents, Bob and Scarlet, are alive, kisses on Band-Aids, rough hands on wrists, old chairs dragged across the porch. They are silence and disappointment. They are also ghosts lingering in the wallpaper in the closet, in the unmade beds, in the crack in the window; and no amount of ping pong or cocktails or arguments about wind or lobster can seem to vanquish them.

North Haven follows four devoted and dysfunctional adult siblings during their weeklong family vacation at their crumbling summer home. Both parents have died in the last few years and this is the first time the kids have come to the house without either parent. While desperately trying to untangle issues in their own lives, they must also decide whether or not to sell their summerhouse. Through flashbacks we get to see the Willoughby siblings as children and discover how their parents, Scarlet and Bob, influenced each of their lives.

"Marathon" — Tennis
Basically anything by Tennis speaks to the aesthetic of this place, of summer on the water, of life in boats. Of love in boats. Tennis is a husband and wife team that took a year to live on a sailboat together, the original form of cruising. It is both romantic and terrifying and the perfect metaphor for marriage. We should all be so lucky to be able to come out of the first year of marriage, one that is notoriously tough, with a beautiful album. In North Haven three different marriages meet three different ends.

"Band of Gold" — Freda Payne
When Scarlet is alone changing the sheets on her bed and realizing that her husband might not come back, she remembers their wedding night, a moment when they couldn't seem to connect. Bob spent the evening in the hotel bar while she stayed in their suite. This is a direct rip-off from the line in this song, "but that night on our honeymoon, we stayed in separate rooms."

"Government Center" — Modern Lovers
Gwen is an artist and, when between teaching gigs, she temps. At the end of her tenure at a temp job she likes to sew her own subversion into the establishment by filing her own drawings of secretaries rebelling, lighting the copiers on fire, etc. I imagine this song running through her head, "make the secretaries feel better, when they put those stamps on all those letters."

"I Feel the Earth Move" — Carol King
I am on the cusp between Gen X and Gen Y, but because I have older siblings I skew Gen X. This is particularly clear to me in my visceral nostalgic response to music from the late 70's. This was what was on the radio in my formative years, it was the kind of thing that our parents' friends played while we all vacationed in this house. Or at least it is what we listened to when we weren't listing to Godspell, Xanadu, or The Mikado on ancient cassette tapes over the tinny speakers of a boom box. When we (by that I mean me) return to our childhood haunts we can revert back to our younger selves, which can be mirrored in what we listen to. When making dinner together, Danny and his siblings argue over these scant musical options.

"Can't Stand Up Alone" — Clyde McPhatter
This is a song I want played at my funeral, and so it is a song that I associate with the sweet hereafter, where Bob and Scarlet have gone, on their permanent vacation.

"Old Man" — Neil Young
In the final draft of the book the copy editor caught a small moment at the very end of the book when Gwen looks at Tom and thinks, "old man take a look at my life," and of course I hadn't thought about the rights to the lyrics or anything and had to remove it. But it felt so perfect for that moment it was a tough edit to make. That song expresses the truth of the situation and Tom's greatest fear.

"When They Fight, They Fight" — Generationals
This is in honor of Scarlet and Bob who, in the first decade of their marriage, connected through their arguments. Their obsession with each other played out through drama and rage. We see this most through the eyes of the kids, which is the exact tone of this song, sweet and happy, but about something dark and lingering.

"Stay in My Corner" — Arcs
This is what Tom wishes he could say to his wife Melissa, but he is too afraid to admit what he truly wants.

"Road" — Nick Drake
F that stupid Volkswagen ad that co-opted this wonderful song and reminded me that I am officially middle aged because every time I think I've (re)discovered some cool band they are in a Target ad the next day. Sigh. But the dip and swing of this lovely song is night driving, and played in my mind during the scene where the Willoughbys are driving home from a restaurant in the lush reverie of a summer night.

"Fool to Cry" — Rolling Stones
This song is Bob: his guilt, his self-loathing, his desperation for Scarlet's love. Marriage can be a rough business, and not in a sexy way.

"Logical Song" — Supertramp (for big brothers everywhere)
I have been told, "girls don't like Supertramp." There is nothing more obnoxious than being told what you do and don't like. I LOVE Supertramp, in part because I associate it with my adored older brother who, as a teenager, listened to this while drawing races cars and dragons. He was the coolest. And in terms of the lyrics this is Tom's anthem, poor guy. Hearing the "birds in the trees" were a turning point for Tom as a boy, when at dawn the sound would connect him to his sisters now asleep in a different room, and he wouldn't be alone listening to his parents fight. "Life was so wonderful…" but then he had to be sensible to the point of blocking out what he wanted and who he really was. "Tell me who I am," but he doesn't even know who to ask.

"Parents are People" — Marlo Thomas and Friends from Free to Be You and Me
Because sometimes you just want to shake your kid by the shoulders and shout, "I am a fucking person. A person!" I feel that Scarlet probably played this for her children often in the hopes of resisting her own urge to harangue them.

"Left My Wallet in El Segundo" — Tribe Called Quest
This song is directly linked to Danny, the youngest of the Willoughby siblings. Unbeknownst to his siblings, Danny has recently dropped out of college and taken a road trip to Mexico. Somewhere along the way he lost his wallet. But he doesn't really care. His ID still says UNDER 21 is bright red block letters, despite the fact that he just had his boozy birthday a couple of months before. So his ID confirms what the rest of the world keeps telling him, "you will never grow up, never catch up." Now that both of his parents are dead he's not sure he wants to grow up anyway. In my own life, I first heard this song lying on the floor of my older sister's room; I can't listen to Tribe without thinking of her. She introduced me to all the best music.

"Sailing" — Christopher Cross
Ok, I tired to resist putting this cheese ball, nostalgia-driven lite FM special on this list, but I couldn't. I know, it's too easy, so on the nose it hurts, like when I told my sister that the Cardigans' song "Rise and Shine" reminded me of her and she responded, "I'm the only sister you have!" Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; we can't be nine layers deep in metaphor all the time. I find the minor key of this song so melancholy that it somehow tempers all the schmaltz for me. It actually makes me think of Bob and Scarlet as Danny imagines them in the afterlife sailing away together on "a strong wind from the south." In fact, this song inspired that image in my mind, that and some stills of Katherine Hepburn on a ship. "I'll be yar now, I promise to be yar," "Be whatever you like, you're my redhead." Not everyone can move seamlessly from Christopher Cross to The Philadelphia Story, but since half of what I write is directly inspired by that movie/play, I can trace almost any inspiration back to it.

"Emily" — Joanna Newsom
Oof, this song! It suits many different parts of the book, particularly the sections from summers when the Willoughby kids are kids. Those sections have a similar poetic, dreamy quality. At one point the kids are all lying on the float in the dark gently waving their arms through the galaxy of phosphorescence in the water. Most importantly, this song fits the connection between Gwen and Libby when they are small. Newsom wrote this song about, and for, her sister, and Newsom's love and admiration for Emily radiates out from each strange, haunting note. Gwen and Libby are best friends, and compatriots in the shifting battles of their family. This passage from the song embodies Libby's feelings for Gwen:

Emily, They'll follow your lead by the letter
And I make this claim, and I'm not ashamed to say I know you better
What they've seen is just a beam of your sun that banishes winter
Let us go! Though we know it's a hopeless endeavor
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever


Sarah Moriarty and North Haven links:

the author's website


also at Largehearted Boy:

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