There is no shortage of books on parenting; people who have children and (annoyingly) people who don’t have children all feel compelled to give advice on this subject. But what many of these books fail to acknowledge is the power of circumstance, and how the environment one grows up in can influence the parent, their child, and the bond they share. Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould is all about circumstance and the havoc it wreaks on our unfolding life. The formative first years of one’s life are inescapable and all-powerful when it comes to dictating the course of one’s life, much to every parent’s discomfort.
Laura is obsessed with becoming a successful musician. When she moves to New York City as a young woman she quickly and somewhat naively falls for Dylan, a promising guitarist in an up-and-coming band. She becomes pregnant with his child but fate has other plans as tragedy strikes and a life of music and fame quickly fall by the wayside. We skip ahead every few years into the future, checking back in with Laura and her daughter Marie, seeing their lives evolve and their history returning to haunt them both. The musical aspect of this novel reminded me a bit of Daisy Jones and the Six because it details the manic and messy lives of artists and juxtaposes it with the ordered and (seemingly tidy) environment of the domestic sphere. Laura is pulled in these two different directions throughout her life; wanting to be the best kind of mother while still pursuing her passion of songwriting. And what mother hasn’t felt that conflict inside them? I do regularly; I want to sit and play with my kids, but my bookshelf is always calling to me. What I liked about this book is that it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and the ending in particular is quite open-ended, which is of course, the most realistic ending of all.
This would be a great book for book clubs because there’s much to discuss here. The love story between Dylan and Laura is short and complicated, but of course Dylan’s influence continues throughout the story in the form of Marie, their child. Laura’s decision to keep Marie seemed a bit out-of-character, but the plotting of the narrative moves quickly so I didn’t dwell on that detail. When we revisit Laura shortly after Marie’s birth, her struggle to raise her daughter by herself on minimal income is painful to read about. Gould zeroes in on a particularly difficult day that Marie and Laura get the stomach flu together, and the utter exhaustion that Laura feels trying to take care of a sick newborn while vomiting uncontrollably herself brought me right back to the time that happened to me, my husband blissfully unscathed on a business trip at the time. Can you tell I’m still bitter about that? It’s no surprise that Gould is a mother herself, because she captures that moment perfectly with such visceral descriptive language I still cringe when thinking of it.
Marie’s genetics are inescapable, and as she learns who her father is when she’s older, her curiosity about him and that side of her family that she never knew becomes overwhelming, threatening to drive a wedge between her and her mother. Gould’s choice to write a few chapter from Marie’s point of view is an interesting one because only giving us Laura’s perspective would have increased the suspense that leads to the climax of the novel. However, the empathy that Gould shows for each of her characters is obvious, the motivation behind the sometimes hurtful words or actions making more sense when we view them through the lens of varied points of view.
A quick googling of Emily Gould’s name came up with numerous hits; she has an overwhelming amount of electronic text available to read, which explains one of the blurbs from Stephanie Danler on the cover of Perfect Tunes calling Gould “one of the essential writers of the internet generation”. Reading this made me question what does “internet generation” mean? Under 30? Can I call myself one of those? Probably not, because I (vaguely) remember a time before the internet. Sigh.
Perfect Tunes is a really quick read with the perfect mix of plot, character development and introspection. The choices of the characters may not always be believable, but it’s their experiences that guide their actions first and foremost, so although they may remain unknowable through the 270ish pages, it’s still a satisfying read.