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In Emily Gould’s Perfect Tunes, Music Isn’t a Recipe for Success

On the page, the main character’s musical aspirations never feel as alive as her interpersonal relationships.

Seth Katz

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Perfect Tunes

Emily Gould’s second novel, Perfect Tunes, is nothing short of frustrating. Gould’s writing comes to life when revealing the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, as it does extensively in the latter two of the book’s three parts. But her approach to writing about music leaves much to be desired. Music drives the lives of her characters, but you almost wouldn’t know that from the lack of musicality to Gould’s prose.

Part one of Perfect Tunes introduces us to Laura, a recent college grad and aspiring musician, who moves in with her best friend, Callie, in New York City. Laura quickly takes a job as a hostess at an upscale bar, where she’s subject to the demeaning treatment of her male supervisor. One night at a music venue, she meets Dylan, whose band, the Clips, is on stardom’s doorstep. They begin a tentative romance, and as Laura navigates the inadequacies of their relationship and pursues her own artistic goals, a pair of tragedies strikes and Gould ruptures the book’s narrative, jumping forward about a year into part two, which covers the early years of Laura’s single motherhood—material that, with its authentic portrait of the day-to-day challenges of childrearing, often recalls the last few stories in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows. As her daughter, Marie, grows into a toddler, Laura puts her artistic aspirations on hold. All the while, Callie’s music career flourishes.

Part three, the novel’s most compelling section, deals with teenage Marie’s relationship with Laura—and with her stepfather and stepsister, whom Laura meets toward the end of part two. For the first time in Perfect Tunes, the narrative moves outside Laura’s consciousness and into Marie’s, opening up wonderful new dramatic avenues. Gould skillfully tracks Marie’s struggle with depression and Laura’s guilt about feeling unfulfilled by a life devoted to parenthood. There’s a particularly moving scene when Marie, confused and disturbed by a recent turn of events in her flirtation with a classmate, comes home drunk, and after a tense confrontation with Laura, Marie off-handedly remarks, “We’ve never been close.” We instantly share Laura’s reaction of shock and bafflement, because Marie’s infanthood, when mother and daughter had “slept in the same bed, breathing in the same rhythm, Marie’s legs kicking [Laura] in the stomach as she drifted from one dream to the next,” was so well-rendered in part two.

But the novel’s other main focus—Laura’s musical aspirations and how they conflict with her responsibilities and identity as a parent—never feels as alive as the mother-daughter relationship. Early chapters, when Laura is young and childless, fail to show what it is, specifically, that songwriting does for her. For one, Gould isn’t quite up to the task of transmogrifying music—a fundamentally non-verbal art form—into vivid sentences. Throughout, Perfect Tunes is full of vague descriptions and clunky dialogue (a loft apartment is “big” and “weird”; Dylan plays a “fuzzy banger”; and a song has a “simple structure and a basic, hooky chord progression”), and when it comes time for Gould to express the feelings brought on by a great song—or even capture the reasons that music is so important to her characters—she either avoids the matter or simply flounders.

Especially in the novel’s second section, Gould very much misses the opportunity to dazzle readers with descriptions of Laura performing with Callie for the first time in years, and to an enthusiastic crowd. She chooses to summarize the event in a single, brief paragraph, and then the rest of that chapter is spent merely informing us of how adrenalizing, how transcendent an experience Laura had on stage. By the end, the reader never gets to feel the moment, to experience it firsthand. (Gould pulls a similar maneuver when 9/11 strikes early on in the book—the first of the two tragedies alluded to earlier.)

Across Perfect Tunes’s pages, we also don’t get much sense of what Laura’s music sounds like. Descriptions of her music are mostly limited to exegeses of her lyrical themes, while references to other bands are rare, and, apart from an early mention that Laura considers her songs “anti-folk,” Gould completely avoids telling the reader anything substantive about the fruits of her protagonist’s creative labor. This is a disappointing deficiency of ambition in an otherwise engaging and moving look at a woman’s interpersonal relationships.

Perfect Tunes is available on April 14 from Avid Reader Press.

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