A review of All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
by REBECCA, March 3, 2013
Beautiful, carefree Aurora lives every moment to the fullest and takes what she wants, whether she’s moshing at concerts, throwing elaborate parties in her mother’s crumbling Seattle mansion, or stalking her latest sexual conquest. Her best friend, our unnamed narrator, has always been content to be the moon to Aurora’s sun. They balance each other and they’re sure that nothing can ever come between them. But this summer they’re going to learn that everything in life has a cost‚ and that sometimes there’s no good choice to make when it comes to protecting the people you love.
I want to spend a second on the plot of All Our Pretty Songs, because I think the Goodreads blurb misrepresents it. And, although I’ll say more about it than I usually would, I don’t think it spoils anything—in fact, if I’d had a better idea of what the book was actually about, I would never have waited so long to read it!
Aurora is the daughter of a Kurt Cobain-esque figure who made it big and then died when she was a kid. Her mother, Maia, haunts the halls of their huge, crumbling house like a wraith, strung-out, leaving Aurora to do whatever she wants. Aurora and our unnamed narrator are a tight duo: they go to shows and parties together, hang out on the beach, and tell each other everything.
This summer, though, at one of Aurora’s parties, a beautiful musician named Jack shows up, and his music is irresistible and otherworldly. The narrator and Jack begin a romance, which surprises and delights her because people are always attracted to Aurora rather than her. But, as the narrator spends more time with Jack, Aurora drifts deeper into the world drugs and powerful industry people that her parents couldn’t escape. A world that will seduce Jack, too, though for very different reasons. In the end, the narrator has to go on a quest—but she isn’t sure if it’s a quest to find Aurora, or to find herself.
All Our Pretty Songs is a stunning debut by Sarah McCarry, with prose by turns lush and biting. It’s set in a realist Seattle, but, in a Francesca Lia Blockish kind of way, the city itself becomes a magical world in which music, art, clothes, and friendship create altered states that transcend realism. Then, of course, there’s the way that All Our Pretty Songs is an intertext with the Orpheus myth. Yep, as in, there is a Hades and a ferryman and other such familiar figures. I use the term “intertext” instead of “adaptation,” because:
1. An adaptation uses another story as its engine, whereas All Our Pretty Songs simply dips into the world of mythology to animate the stakes of the story, which are not the stakes of the Orpheus myth.
2. A knowledge of the myth in question does not completely give away the entire story (thank you, god, Sarah McCarry for not falling into that shockingly common trap!).
3. I hate adaptations and I love this book; so there.
All Our Pretty Songs is, at heart, a story about intimacy: how it empowers us, but also makes us susceptible to grief; how it reveals truths about us, but can also distract us from discovering those truths about ourselves; and how, finally, it is a force far beyond our control. The narrator’s and Aurora’s intimacy is one of sisters, and it echoes the intimacy their mothers had before the aftermath of Aurora’s dad’s death divided them (their story is the subject of the second book in the series, Dirty Wings). The narrator’s intimacy with Jack is a revelation to her, since she’s never thought of herself as beautiful or lovable. And, as the story progresses, the narrator feels a greater intimacy with her mother as she finds herself replicating some of her mother’s struggles.
As I mentioned, I hate adaptations. I nearly never come away from them convinced that the adaptation was anything other than an uninteresting and unnecessary cheat in which the author took a narrative blueprint and danced all over it, either to lend legitimacy to their work or to avoid having to think up a narrative arc on their own. But All Our Pretty Songs completely earned its intertextuality with Greek mythology because it managed to cut to the heart of their power. The Seattle that the narrator, Aurora, their parents, and Jack live in is one in which music and art is a calling; an avocation. For them, it is worth sacrificing for—indeed, much of what they do already feels like they making sacrifices to it. Sex and drugs are just two of the ways they can both sacrifice and escape. It feels absolutely right, then, that music and drugs would narratively open up the visible world to the invisible just as they do figuratively.
It’s interesting to look at ratings of All Our Pretty Songs on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever because it’s one of the most equal distributions of opinions I’ve seen. I’m always intrigued by books where it’s split between half the people loving it and half hating it; that’s usually just an indicator of taste. All Our Pretty Songs is clearly a book that readers are ambivalent about, though. In some ways, I think it’s a very atypical young adult book, which might account for the spread: the audience it’s marketed toward isn’t expecting its slow dreaminess, or its focus on prose, or its meandering quality. And, to come full circle, I think the blurb (and the cover, which I think is a real mis-fit) sets readers up for a coming-of-age love triangle set in the Seattle music scene. And that’s definitely not what we get.
I’m incredibly excited by this debut and I can’t wait to read the second book. Are there places that feel a bit repetitive here or drag a little? Sure. But the prose is so lovely and the voice of the narrator so true that I was always compelled to read, sentence-to-sentence. If it’s not to your taste, you’ll know it in ten pages because, yes, that’s how the whole book is. But, if it is . . .
War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull (1987).
Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making. My full review is HERE.
Violet & Claire (1999), Weetzie Bat (1989), Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), by Francesca Lia Block. Violet and Claire are a duo similar to the narrator and Aurora. All Our Pretty Songs is to Seattle what Weetzie Bat is to L.A. Ecstasia and Primavera have a Bachanalian/dystopian take on music’s power to create and destroy.
Teeth, Hannah Moskowitz (2013). The line between realism and myth is blurred in Teeth, and the prose is beautiful. Check out my full review HERE, and my post on the genre of the Oceanic Gothic, of which I’m convinced Teeth is a part, HERE.
procured from: the library