Anyone who knows me at all even a little bit knows that I get songs stuck in my head all the time. Like, all the time. My head is rarely quiet. A word will remind me of a song (not always logically) and it will be there for ages. And sometimes there is no apparent stimulus.
So when I ran across a book about a woman who “reads songs” – who basically uses the songs people have in their heads as a basis for amateur psychoanalysis – I couldn’t resist. If this actually existed, I would be tempted to try it. In fact, it might come up eventually when I start seeing a counselor.
I was absolutely captivated. I’d never heard of the book before running across it in a charity shop, but the only reason I didn’t finish it in one night was because I hit a chapter break around 2 am, and I’m trying to make an attempt to stay on a normal sleeping pattern. I woke up early (not deliberately) and had the book finished by 9.30.
It’s set in a small town in the Midwest – the back of the book says Southern, and it’s about five hours from Kansas City, but I can’t remember if they ever actually specified the state. Mary Beth and Leann are two sisters, with quite a large age difference between them. Their dad is gone and their mother is dead, so Mary Beth, who is legally an adult, raises her sister. Mary Beth is the song reader. Leann is an overly intelligent young teenager.
It’s a book about the connection between music and memory; it’s also a book about mental illness (catatonic depression, and something that might be OCD or something like that). Mostly, though, it’s a book about love. Passionate, sexual love; family love; twisted destructive love; friendship and loyalty. Love is the driving factor in so many parts of this book, including past events. Lack of love is the driving factor in most of the other parts. Parental relationships are destructive; romantic relationships are passionate and life-changing; sibling relationships are the most important factor in your life.
The two boyfriends – Mary Beth’s and Leann’s – were amazing. Almost too good to be true, except not so perfect that they couldn’t be. I loved them both. I loved most of the characters in this book, actually. I got a little bit frustrated with Mary Beth at the end, with the pressure that she inadvertently put on Leann and her patterns that were set in the relationship with their mother. I hated her a little bit for forcing their father to leave – tricking him into leaving, essentially – but given what we already knew about her character and her problems it made sense. Mary Beth is a fixer. She is there for people to need her, and she throws herself into other people far more passionately than she does for herself. She will do whatever she can to make people’s lives better – and that started with her mother, and continues on to her song reading. Of course, because she gives everything she has to other people, she has no reserves left for herself, for when things go wrong.
One message that I took from this book – probably not ultimately the intended message, but one that I’ve thought for several years – was that sometimes it’s necessary to be selfish. It’s not good to be selfish all the time, of course – to expect the world to live up to your expectations and to criticize it when it doesn’t instead of doing what you can to change it. But you also can’t stay sane when you invest 100% of yourself in other people. You have to let yourself be selfish and need people sometimes; you can’t make your entire life revolve around other people needing you, or you’ll have nothing left. Leann is a much stronger person than Mary Beth because she works both ways. She is there for other people when they need her, and she gives a lot, whatever she can. But she also has a role of her own in the world, a personality of her own; she doesn’t exist only when she is needed. And that is what allows her to survive emotionally the events that Mary Beth cannot.
And I haven’t even really gotten into the whole song-reading thing – which, to be fair, is only ever seen from Leann’s perspective, and she is not the one who actually does it. But the idea is fascinating, and the connection between music and memory is fascinating, and I’ll have to think about that one a little bit more.
I loved this book, I really did. I didn’t expect to, but I did. If you can find it, I recommend it.