This was the book I needed at the onset of quarantine. Perfect Tunes calmed my mind from the barrage of news and the anxiety of pandemic. I fell easily in rhythm with Laura, a young musician and songwriter from Ohio that heads to New York City in the early aughts. The story is a fun blend of nostalgia and music, but I was most enthralled by its insightful examination of creativity within the confines of being a woman and a mother.
The book spans over a decade, and starts with Laura as a naïve 22-year-old trying to avoid harassment at a hostessing job in order to pay her half of the rent for the Manhattan apartment she splits with her best friend Callie. They go to shows, bars, parties, and they meet musicians.
Laura meets Dylan, the lead singer-guitarist in a band called The Clips. Emily Gould’s writing is straightforward, resonant, and funny, too (Laura muses early on: “Dylan had the most beautiful dick in the world.”) Readers witness Laura’s journey into early onset adulthood after becoming pregnant, and the narrative makes dramatic jumps in time. We meet her daughter Marie as an infant, and watch her grow from toddler to teenager. The flash forwards and curveballs in Laura’s narrative kept the pages turning swiftly, and I found myself completely (and happily) transported.
The feeling of nostalgia was especially strong for me since I met my musician husband in an East Village dive bar in the aughts. He was in town recording an album with his band and I was temping anywhere I could to make my portion of the rent in a Bushwick loft that had no walls and going to any party listed on myopenbar.com. Maybe Laura and I would’ve been friends. Perfect Tunes reminded me so much of those first weeks navigating New York, and that flaming desire between two young people in the middle of a grimy city.
Sadly amidst my relishing of memories, at one point the real world managed to seep in. On April 1st I was reading Perfect Tunes when I heard that musician Adam Schlesinger had passed away of complications from COVID-19. I made a note on the page I was on at the time, where Laura meets Dylan at a recording studio where his band is recording a new song. I made a note because thirteen years ago I was in a similar situation when I visited the musician from that dive bar at a Manhattan recording studio. He introduced me to the producer of his band’s latest album, Adam Schlesinger. I closed the book for a moment: feeling transported in a way I was not anticipating, the coincidence morbid and sad. When I opened it again, hours after hearing the news, Laura starts playing her songs for Dylan and I appreciated these characters keeping me company, letting me in on their burgeoning connection tied together with mutual creativity.
Of course, as I continued on Laura’s journey, our fates diverged. And Dylan becomes decidedly besides the point, with good reason. Because what really shines in Perfect Tunes is the dynamics between Laura and the women in the book.
I loved the evolution of Laura’s friendship with Callie, her best friend from her hometown who paves the way for Laura to move to New York. Realistically fun and fraught as they orbit each other over the years, relying on but losing track of each other at times as well. When Laura becomes a mother, a chasm opens between them and the differing paths they must take. Their scenes together after Marie is born tug at familiar emotions when one might find themselves at a completely disparate, unexplainable mental space with someone they used to share every inane thought with.
“Laura had long since stopped trying to fill Callie in on specifics. Spinning the latest events of Marie’s life into a funny anecdote for someone who didn’t have any point of reference for what little kids were like just made her feel gross, like a bad stand-up comedian, and like she was selling out Marie’s intimate little details in a way that was disrespectful to her.”
Though Callie and Laura are two distinct women with their own sensibilities and personality traits, the trajectory of Callie’s life almost seems like a ‘what might’ve been’ for Laura’s own. Not that Laura would ever have the time to dwell on this—she’s making ends meet and being responsible for her daughter Marie.
Gould’s humor remains present as Laura navigates what it takes to be a mom, but there’s also a genuine, throttling reconciling of trying to be a Good, Responsible Mom and being A Person. The reader experiences the small things, the minuscule moments that can take over one’s mindset. Or the realizations that previously did not register, like coming upon flowers in a window box and seeing not their beauty but the work that went into creating their beauty, like Laura does; this moment in the book resonated with me, my own march through motherhood peppered with similar lightbulb understandings of the work that usually goes unnoticed.
“Another crisis averted. It seemed like there was another one every day, and though this time she had been lucky, more lucky than she deserved, the constant almost-crises took their toll. Laura felt the material of her soul stretch a little bit thinner every time the girls were in harm’s way. Sometimes it seemed like she was punished every time she even dared to think about anything else while in their presence.”
As Laura makes these realizations, Marie becomes a teenager, moving away from her mother as her own person, and unable to see or understand yet (ever?) what parts of herself Laura left dormant or abandoned to raise Marie. I felt a little tug while reading to call my mom and talk to her about her first years with me, what me turning into a teenager felt like for her. I didn’t: but I made a note that I should. Typical Marie, typical daughter.
Gould writes the many women in her novel with such care, and none seem like clichés or flat characters though they may only have small roles. Even what might seem like the book’s antagonist, a woman named Daisy, unravels into another perspective on motherhood. I shouldn’t be surprised that Gould renders women and their relationships so well; she wrote a previous novel about my favorite topic, women’s friendships, called—wait for it—Friendship, and she published books by women writers under an imprint called Emily Books up until February of this year. Perfect Tunes feels like a culmination of years of reading excellent portrayals of women and I’m here for it.
The climax of Perfect Tunes is fraught, frightening, and heart-pumping: but it’s not the end. Where Gould chooses to end the novel had me raising my eyebrows. I’m sitting here writing this review for a site I feel passionately about because I love books, and I love writing, and I love experiencing the world through art. I just finished washing the dishes and my four year old daughter is bouncing a ball to me while I try to form the words about this book: I’m assured and comforted by the fact that Laura, and Gould, understand that duality. Perfect Tunes’ final page had me smirking, smiling, and wondering what would be next for Laura, and what my own ending might look like.
By Emily Gould
270 pages. 2020.
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