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I’m of the mind that pretty much everything in life is better with a soundtrack, and that includes books. I tend to make my own, because, despite the fact that novels often contain more rich themes and images to be paired with bits of musical genius than films and TV shows, paperback playlists are not a common phenomenon. So, when Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel, Wonderland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), arrived with a press kit filled with a pre-assembled list of songs—many of which I enjoy—well, let’s just say a chord within me was struck.
Compulsively flipping from one page to the next only confirmed my suspicion that I was going to appreciate this particular novel. Too often, writing about music in a way that resonates with readers can be a frustrating endeavor–like trying to explain the color yellow to someone who’s never seen it. But D’Erasmo does a rare thing with Wonderland: she combines the delightful worlds of literature and music while bringing out the best in both mediums.
I suspect D’Erasmo pulls this off so well because Wonderland isn’t so much a book about music as it is a book about a musician, an artist, a woman. The woman is question is forty-four-year-old Anna Brundage, a “too-tall,” red-haired musician (I pictured a statuesque cross between Tori Amos, Neko Case, and Ana Matronic, personally) who achieved a certain level of fame among indie rock fans before crashing and burning and leaving the business for seven years to teach woodshop to little girls at a private school in New York City.
This is not to say that music doesn’t get its due share of the spotlight. On the contrary, the reader is given insight into the music business, how an album comes together, what going on tour is like, and much more. But the real story is about a woman giving up everything for a second chance to do what she believes she’s meant to do. Of performing, she says: “There are many things—most things, really—that I can’t do. But I can do this. It is far too much, and not nearly enough.”
This is not to say that our narrator is following the path of least resistance. It’s been said that the key to constructing any plot is to give the protagonist an obstacle to overcome, and D’Erasmo gives Anna many. Throughout her comeback tour she experiences setbacks and specters, including past lovers and marriages, a terminated pregnancy, the death of her father, hostile crowds and band mates, storms and heat waves, and more. And perhaps the most challenging barrier of all is her persistent doubt as to whether it’s all worth it and truly meant to be. This tension, so beautifully and subtly explored by D’Erasmo, is the heart of the novel, and should be familiar to anyone who’s worked on anything even remotely creative.
The structure of the novel even recalls that of a well-composed song, with new verses being interspersed with familiar refrains. One such reoccurring theme is that you only really hear and appreciate a song the second time it’s played. I suspect the same can be said of reading such a rich and exquisitely crafted novel—and I have the perfect playlist already tuned up for my second visit to Wonderland.
By Stacey D’Erasmo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 9780544074811, 242 pp.