My sixth NetGalley read out of the ten I have lined up – that’s what the first two days of a week off will do for you, even if you’ve not gone anywhere (having a true “staycation” in my house).

I had seen this novel around and on NetGalley but it took a mention on A Life in Books’s “Books to Look out for” themed posts (here) to propel me into requesting it. And I’m glad I did!

Carlene Bauer – “Girls They Write Songs About”

(08 June 2022, NetGalley)

She was the person with whom I’d changed my life into something like myth. Someone who I thought needed to remain in my life until death. So I swallowed words and banished thoughts because we still had miles to go.

Rose must have been the only person I’ve ever truly loved, because she was the only person I’ve ever made excuses for when she failed to live up to the image I had or wanted to have of her.

Rose and Charlotte arrive in New York from almost identical backgrounds of near-poverty in New Jersey, being the only girl like them, needing to get out, and almost identical plans to become a hot writer on a music magazine then write books and get their names known. In fact they go for the same job: Rose gets it, Charlotte’s her editor, and so begins half a lifetime of vying with each other but also being (eventually) the very best of friends, second daughters to each other’s mothers, competing over the same man in different ways, but going to see bands (music is so important in this book, which I loved), having hysterics over nothing, wearing weird thrift-store outfits, editing each other’s work, typing articles in the middle of the night and saving each other from dodgy situations.

We see them grow up and one of them gets what the other doesn’t think either of them want or need, a well-off husband and a family, the other continuing to lead that rackety sort of life, working their way through men’s beds and writing. When it comes down to it, is it better to have two published books or two houses? Two published books or two children? The book came alive in the early stages and again when one woman has children the other is very close to. At times, the bitter marriages got a bit John Updike-y, but what this book probably really is is Marilyn French’s “Women’s Room” for this generation of young feminists; well, young women.

I say this because we are shown the range of lives a woman can have, single, married, faithful, having affairs, having children, having abortions, having a career, having a marriage, being a home-maker, being a home-wrecker, taking from other women, giving to other women. Set-pieces have both women on stage at various points discussing aspects of love and womanhood. Our narrator mulls over the choices she’s made and the undeniable superior importance of friendship. The most “political” thing she says she does is help her friend have an abortion, by lending her the money; I can see how this happens as they are almost exact contemporaries of mine, and if they hadn’t hit certain books aged 17-21, and absorbed certain ideas, they’d have been caught between second wave feminism that was about to run its course and the Riot Grrl movements of third wave feminism which were a bit confusing and I think inform this book. On sexual politics and creativity, she updates Woof’s Room of One’s Own:

It takes real work for a woman to sustain the creation of something outside herself that is not a child. Real will, because we are always going to be tempted in a way men aren’t to wander off the road and find some place to get knocked up so we can relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to figure out what everything in life is really worth, and then, as a reward for this abdication of responsibility, get ourselves worshipped as if we’d climbed Mount Everest when all we’d done was let nature take its course. Men don’t walk around with a door inside them that they’ll constantly have to worry about – should I open it, should I keep it shut, does it lock, well, wait, if I lock it, can I call a locksmith to get it back open, how long does it stay open, what’s the data on what happens if you’ve left it open for a really long time, can anything get through? Should I shut it or keep it open?

As well as all this detail and thought and interrogation of feminism, this book is beautifully written, long looping sentences that go into stream of consciousness but can also be followed. From a description of being on the phone in two apartments that are situated like positions on a clock face around a central corporate tower to the Moon and its relationship to New York inhabitants to the above discussion of the balance between producing art and producing children, it’s just stunningly laid out. An example:

We’d been taken there for drinks by men in the twilight of their prime and agents at the dawn of their ascent, and whenever we sat at the bar we felt as if we’d been asked to sit for a portrait that would one day prove legendarily bewitching.

There’s one thing I have to mention and which I have fed back in the publisher feedback section on NetGalley. Twice the book uses an ablist slur (to clarify, after a comment: a term that used to be used to refer to people living with a certain disability, now not used but not pejorative in itself is used to refer in a pejorative sense to two people who are not living with a disability but to show a negative opinion about them), related to the one the singer Lizzo was almost cancelled for and rescinded in a recent song. Once it’s in the narrative, once in reported direct speech; both times another word could have easily done and this author has a beautiful, considered, poetic writing style which implies to me that she could and should have replaced it (maybe she has in the published version; maybe someone can let me know!). It’s a minor point but it can’t be waved aside as being “of the book’s time” etc. as it’s perfectly easy not to use it, and other words used then aren’t.

Thank you to Oneworld for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Girls They Write Songs About” was published on 7 July 2022.

In a Bookish Beck Book Serendipity moment, both this and the book I was reading in paperback at the same time, “Moving On” by Larry McMurtry have mentions of Iris Murdoch, and while you would imagine I see my favourite author everywhere, it’s not hugely common to see her mentioned, and certainly not in two very different books published in 1970 and 2022! In the McMurtry (and there might be more; I haven’t finished it yet) we get a conversation between a nice but worldly man and a young wife in out of her depth:

‘Maybe you’ve been reading too much Iris Murdoch,’ he said. ‘Your coming out here like this reminds me a little of her stuff. People are always getting ont bed with one another out of the blue.’

‘No I haven’t,’ she said, beginning to feel a little less wretched. ‘I don’t read very good books, really. I read a lot of magazines.’ (p. 134)

whereas in this novel, a character reads another character’s copy of “The Bell”, and they end up discussing

… how Murdoch’s thoughts about fiction might have been more valuable than the fiction she coud not stop writing. Whereas with Virginia Woolf, said [name redacted; spoiler], and from coffee to the motel we finished that sentence together.

I don’t agree with that comment, but it’s lovely to see Murdoch being discussed!