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August 14, 2017

Book Notes - Sylvia Brownrigg "Pages For Her"

Pages For Her

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.

Sylvia Brownrigg's Pages For Her compelling sequel to Pages for You is a thoughtful and lyrical depiction of two womens' lives.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"[A] deeply thoughtful, absorbing fifth novel . . . Pages for Her is filled with such rich considerations―of meaning, direction, comparative ways of being―in restless, sensuous prose . . . We're glad to come to know these women, and to be taught by what happens between them."

In her own words, here is Sylvia Brownrigg's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Pages For Her:

The soundtrack for my novel Pages For Her has two parts, since this book is a sequel to Pages for You, published in 2001. You don't have to read the first book to enjoy the second, they stand independently, though they speak to one other— something like the way a cover version speaks to the original song. (Everyone has their favorites: Kurt Cobain singing Lead Belly, Prince singing Joni Mitchell, Wyclef Jean singing Pink Floyd.)

The main characters in both novels are Flannery Jansen and Anne Arden, who first met at college, when Flannery was a wide-eyed freshman, and Anne a beautiful and brilliant graduate student. They have an intense, love affair, a half year of sensual and intellectual discoveries that ends in heartbreak—as first loves nearly always do.

Pages For Her takes up the story of Flannery add Anne twenty years later, at very different points in their lives. Flannery is married to a charismatic artist named Charles, and has a sweet little girl she adores, but is trying to relocate herself after being submerged in the roles of wife and mother. Anne, in the midst of a successful academic career, is contending with her long-term partner Jasper having left her. When the two women meet again for the first time in years, they rediscover not just that there is still a connection between them, but also that each has somehow held a place within themselves for the other. In an underground way, their love has endured.

Love stories, like love songs, have to walk a careful path to avoid being sweet or cloying; though in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote a piece arguing that love songs are essential even when they are cliched: "The love song, whether from Shakespeare or his lessers, is to the currency of our feelings what the dollar bill is to our economy, the dining-room table to our family life—the necessary, inevitable thing. Exactly because everything is a love song, we sigh at another one, even as we prepare to sing it."

So: maybe really every song is a love song; and every story ultimately is a love story. In any case, these are some songs for Flannery and Anne.

Pages for You

"Every Day I Write the Book" by Elvis Costello & the Attractions

This is a song I shared with my own first college love, who was nothing like Anne, though together we had some of the great swoons and fevers of young passion (and a few specific moments that I did slide into that novel). The Prologue of Pages for You begins with the narrator promising a friend that she will write, "Each day a page, to show you that I'm finding a story, the story of how we might have been together, once." It's almost a subconscious echo of Elvis Costello's lyric: "I'm giving you a long look… every day I write the book." I like that the music is jaunty and has a snap to it, though the lyrics have an edge too, as you'd expect from Elvis: "You said you'd stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three/ But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four Five and Six."

"Stewart's Coat" by Rickie Lee Jones

I've loved Rickie Lee Jones since my brother played her for me when I was in my teens, and I've carried her into every relationship since, with varying results. My college love and I played "Walk Away Renee" together, a great unrequited love song, probably suspecting that one of us would end up leaving the other; my former husband found a way for us to listen to Rickie sing in someone's home; and during a charming, philandering poet with whom I had a misguided affair introduced me to this song of hers, Stewart's Coat. Usually RLJ is jazzy and angled, but "Stewart's Coat" is one of her straightest, sweetest songs. Still: "Hold me love; I can't sleep again… " How is anyone supposed to resist that?

"I Found a Reason" by Cat Power

Chan Marshall, in her covers, slices off pieces of the original, to keep just the core of the song she is after; so Cat Power crooning, "You'd better come come come, come come to me, better run, run run, run to me," has a purity that is completely different from Lou Reed's darker lyric in the full Velvet Underground song: he has found a reason to live, and "the reason is you". Flannery and Anne never have that kind of adolescent I'll die if I can't have you love. Theirs is much closer to Cat Power's urgent, quiet want. Even young Flannery, devastated when Anne ends their relationship in the first book, knows she will survive the heartbreak, and maybe be better for it. In Pages For Her, we learn how true that was: how many gifts Anne gave her with that love—including the gift of heartbreak.

"Straight, No Chaser" by Thelonious Monk

One important element in Flannery and Anne's story is the relationships they each have with the men in their lives. Flannery learns that Anne had once (and will have again) a partner named Jasper, and with Jasper Anne shared things she'll never have with Flannery—such as Paris, or like Thelonious Monk. Flannery hears Anne playing Monk one evening when Anne is cooking for the two of them, and can feel Anne going elsewhere as she listens to the music. In both novels, this is part of love: knowing that there are other loves behind or ahead of you, too. "Straight No Chaser" is a great piece, even if you are frightened by jazz, as Flannery is and as I used to be.

"Help Me" by Joni Mitchell

We've got to have Joni in here, she is essential to any soundtrack of love and life (if not always writing: it depends on the book). "Help Me" is another great love song that acknowledges that two people don't always sync up precisely in their passion: "Help me, I think I'm falling in love with you," Joni sings, then has to ask, "Are you going to let me go there by myself? that's such a lonely thing to do."  Flannery and Anne fell in love with each other, but from the start Flannery knew that she was more fully inside their love than Anne was. Anne's leaving her is written into their story from the beginning, as Flannery somehow realized, by its end. Flannery didn't fall in love by herself; but she stayed longer, after Anne had left. That is one reason there had to be a sequel one day: I had to write Pages For Her so we could learn what happened to them after. People kept asking me, and I wanted to find out.

Pages For Her

"Rather Be" by Clean Bandit

OK, zillions of people have viewed the video on YouTube but I doubt that Flannery knows that—she doesn't have time yet to watch YouTube again, her kid is still too young. (Willa is just six.) When Flannery meets Anne again in Pages For Her, initially she is almost too alarmed by the feeling she still has to want to be in a room alone with Anne; but eventually, the way Jess Glynne sings is the best expression of how Flannery feels: there is no place she would rather be. This later version of their love is complicated for Flannery—after all she does have a husband, and a child she loves, across the country in her San Francisco home—("We're a thousand miles from comfort") but for the few days they are together in New Haven, this is where she wants to be. And no place else.

"At My Most Beautiful" by R E M

The coolness and sweetness of Michael Stipe come together in this song—I hate to keep using the word sweet, but that is the only way to describe a line like, "At my most beautiful I count your eyelashes secretly." There are those hidden moments in love, maybe most often while the other is sleeping but you are still too wired to—when you can silently admire your beloved, without having to feel self-conscious or even faintly sinister about your own sappiness. You can just quietly enjoy your moment of astonishment and luck. Also the recurring line in this song, "I've found a way to make you smile," seems right for Flannery, who used to find Anne intimidating, a bit fierce (she has always been so beautiful and so sure of herself). Twenty years later, herself older, more confident, sadder, more knowing: now Flannery can find that buried and vulnerable part of Anne. She can make her smile.

"Famous Blue Raincoat" by Jennifer Warnes

Leonard Cohen's songs are often so melancholy that if it is his deep resigned voice singing them, you more or less want to kill yourself. (There is a reason so many other singers cover "Hallelujah," it becomes inspiring in others' voices; Cohen's own rendition is a closer to a dirge.) Jennifer Warnes' cover of Cohen's brilliant love triangle song not only makes its story bearable, but brings out the strange consolation there can be in knowing that someone you love—here it is Jane—is loved by someone else, too. In the song, the other man somehow helpe his Jane. And thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good, so I never really tried. I find this true about love, and it's woven into Flannery and Anne's story: two people can't always be everything for each other. Flannery has loved how adored Anne was, by Jasper; and in Pages For Her Anne respects the love between Flannery and Charles, though she knows little of it.

An improbable side note on "Famous Blue Raincoat": it is one of the only songs, for some reason, I can actually sing start to finish, and so I used to sing it as a kind of lullaby for my son when he was a baby (and later my daughter). I figured he didn't really need to know or understand the words, the tune was pretty. Why wouldn't it be as soothing to go to sleep to as All the Pretty Horses? Or a ditty about a bough breaking, and the baby and crib coming crashing to the ground?

"The Fox (What does the Fox Say?)" by Ylvis

Brief break for some light relief, and a hit that was part of the sound track of my writing the first draft of Pages For Her. Our family was living in London, and this pretty terrible but oddly haunting song by a Norwegian comedy duo became one of the year's break out viral sensations. It was also the first pop song I listened to with my kids, 9 and 12 at the time. We all became minorly obsessed by the song and the video: we knew it was ludicrous but somehow you couldn't look away. Also, there was a fox in London who jogged boldly through back yards, marking his territory, and you had to wonder if he sang the way the song imagined him to. Pages For Her is not only about romantic love, but about maternal love, and the first moment you start sharing songs with your kids—real, adult songs—is a landmark in your relation with them. You'll be glad to know that it went up from there: Twenty One Pilots and Chance the Rapper and many perfectly respectable artists would be songs we could sing together.

"Hold You in My Arms" by Ray La Montagne
"Need the Sun to Break" by James Bay
"Lullaby" by Dixie Chicks

I did listen to some old-fashioned, honest-to-god love songs while rewriting Pages For Her. During an extended period of editing, I was having a passionate love affair my own self, so music and life and fiction twined together nicely. Mine wasn't the same story as the one in Pages For Her (of course it wasn't: this was life after all, not art), so she was not someone I had known for years but was someone I was just meeting and getting to know. We traded songs and playlists, and as we lived at some distance from each other, this music became essential to how we communicated about how much we missed each other. James Bay was big on the radio, so his lines, "I need the sun to break, you've woken up my heart, I'm shaking" seemed right for new love; and she introduced me to the soulful gravel of Ray La Montagne, whose songs we once listened to together in an LA park; and the spare, lovely adoration in the Dixie Chicks song, "They didn't have you where I come from—" can really hit you, late at night, if you are pining away for a person. These three are love songs in that vein. Listen to them and sigh. (I did.)

"Two of Us" by The Beatles

And the Beatles, finally. This song must be Paul, right? All four of them could be silly and playful, but this tune has Paul's lilt to it, and I think I read that he wrote it as a bromance love song to his mate John. I love that kind of love: the buddy kind, the going so deep you'll always be something to each other kind, even if spouses or kids intervene and claim your affections, too. The love between Anne and Flannery is a romantic one, but it has a strain of the buddy love in it, too: the two women can tease each other, they can prank each other. There is a scene, in bed, in which they pass back and forth an imaginary cigarette, and take deep, nicotine-free drags, because neither of them smokes any more, of course. ("I completely shocked Willa once," Flannery tells Anne, after faux-exhaling, "by telling her, in passing, that I had smoked in college. You should have seen her face. It was like I told her I had robbed a bank.") Flannery and Anne love each other enough that they could take a road trip, one day, together—as Flannery did with a previous girlfriend, the woman she was with after Anne. That is how you know you love someone: if you can drive with them. "You and I have memories/ Longer than the road that stretches out ahead."

Sylvia Brownrigg and Pages For Her links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
New Republic review
San Francisco Chronicle review
ZYZZYVA review

San Jose Mercury News profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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