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November 27, 2017

Book Notes - Maryl Jo Fox "Clara at the Edge"

Clara at the Edge

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.

Maryl Jo Fox's novel Clara at the Edge is an imaginative, lyrical, and often surprising debut.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

"Clara is a fascinating, feisty character….The writing is haunting and lyrical, and frequently ripples with humor and heart….Clara truly is at the edge of something greater than herself....[and her] story unspools in a compelling and engaging way."

In her own words, here is Maryl Jo Fox's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Clara at the Edge:

Clara's ready to pop, that's the long and short of it. She's 73 and hugely needs to speak of old secrets before she dies miserable and alone. But she's too scared to dig up that old rot. Her magic wasps could help her talk if she could let them. So this novel is a process of learning to speak -- sometimes out of raw fear. She must confront her greatest fears or lose what she values most. She's on the edge. She's only got her son Frank left. And he's alienated from her.

I wrote Clara in complete silence, with only the computer, occasional cars, airplanes and flocks of birds to be heard. I played the piano for many years and music is almost as important to me as literature. But I never understood how intertwined they were until, strangely, my husband and I worked together proofreading the novel. We took turns reading certain passages aloud – and I became extremely aware of whether a sentence demanded a comma, a colon or a dash. Each one had a different intonation , becoming almost a piece of music.

But though I wasn't thinking about music, Clara's playlist seems perfectly natural and fitting. It was wonderful to hear Puccini again on my playlist. I have instructed my husband to play some Puccini if I'm ever in a coma because I will surely wake up and smile.

I've lived a large part of my life in desert country (Idaho, California). I do love the desert, its majestic silence and refusal to be anything but what it is. My father was a linotype operator, my mother taught sixth grade. We didn't have much money but they put me and my sister through college. I rode the Greyound to Berkeley and always played the nickel slots in Jackpot when we stopped for a rest stop. Who knew Jackpot would become a setting for this novel?

Clara's Playlist

"Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
Frank hears his mother singing "Some Enchanted Evening” to the wasps. Haskell sees her dance with wasps on her head. So of course they think she's nuts. Barkley disagrees. "Normal people don't know as much as they think they do.” His heroes "had the heart to lose their lives out on a limb” and he wants to be like them. "You really think you're in control? Well I think you're crazy. Maybe we're crazy.” Clara loves this piece, plays it incessantly, defiantly.

"Lonely Woman " – Ornette Coleman, alto sax
This jagged jazz piece stops Clara in her tracks, reminding her of all her losses: her husband, her daughter, her alienated son. The song isn't pretty – it's tortured. She didn't know music could be like this, so honest and raw that she must listen in private. It's ugly if you can't adjust to it. She has to close all the doors when it's playing.

"Our House” - Crosby, Stills & Nash
Then there's the opposite: "Our house is a very, very , very fine house with two cats in the yard --- Now everything is easy ‘cause of you . . . " Clara and Darrell basked in the first idyllic years of marriage before he died. Now the house feels somewhat like a prison to Clara, even though she still loves it. The wasps seem to understand this double meaning and act accordingly.

"Adagio for Strings” – Samuel Barber
This simple, direct adagio is painfully beautiful, enormously sad. The single pure note at the beginning becomes tense rising harmonies that settle into a quiet acceptance of mortality. You could listen to it while watching the sun set over the Nevada desert. And she did.

"Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair”—Nina Simone
Simone's husky voice and detached but utterly focused manner show a strength that anyone would swear by. One of my old boyfriends introduced me to folk music and this song. He was a great dancer. He sang the song in my ear as he led me in dance moves that were just terrific.

"Burning Down the House” – Talking Heads
Clara's life-changing crisis with troubled Dawson Barth and girlfriend Edie Porter (avoiding spoilers) leads to an avalanche of revived memory, feeling and action in Clara. The song embodies her feelings at a critical moment in the story.

"Lady in Red" - Chris de Burgh
In her dramatic trip to Elko, much happens to Clara – in her head. Her imagination and mind have been set free by the shock of what has transpired. "Lady in Red,” one of the most romantic pop love songs from the '80s, appeals directly to women's love of flattery. "Never saw you look so bright . . .” Clara remembers her husband and old boyfriends. She wants to find love again before it's too late. Her yearning finds expression in this over-the-top ballad.

Suddenly Clara bursts into tears. She is a total sucker for Puccini arias, and here are two in a row—"Nessun Dorma” from Turandot by Pavoratti and "E Lucevan de Stelle” from Tosca by Placido Domingo. Why is this beauty like a cry? Puccini is too much for her right now. She gets goose pimples and more crying but these tears make her feel better, not worse.

"September Song" - Sarah Vaughan
This song ties together all the themes about mortality, limits, and yearning to live. As the novel draws to an end, Clara suddenly remembers this song, a favorite when she was young.

"Fanfare for the Common Man" – Aaron Copeland
The music has an unpretentious, haunting melody, a quiet strength and nobility. It strikes me as a particularly American song. It reminds me of Clara, a dignified straight shooter. And I remember my father riding to work at the local newspaper on his bike, his lunch kit hanging from the handlebars.

Maryl Jo Fox and Clara at the Edge links:

the author's website

Centered on Books review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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