Review: All Our Pretty Songs

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls, best friends since they were born. Sharing so much: heartaches, family, music. They are not identical, no, but rather they complement each other. “Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures.” Aurora drinks her nights away, knowing her best friend will always be there to make sure she gets home again. Then there is the show where the two girls meet Jack. Beautiful, talented Jack.

Jack and his music will change everything.

The Good: This book can be read two different ways. Which I love.

The unnamed narrator (and how much do I love that we never learn her name) are the daughters of two former best friends. Cass (the narrator’s mother) and Mia (Aurora’s mother) were much like their daughters: living for music, for shows, for the moment, and for musicians. Aurora’s father became famous, and then died, leaving shattered family and friends. Mia has money but she also floats around in a daze of drugs and alcohol. Cass knew she couldn’t get sober and be around Mia, so she picked sober. Cass and her daughter have been struggling financially ever since.

That is the background, all happening before the book, before the summer the girls turn seventeen. Despite their mothers’ estrangement, despite the difference in finances, the girls remain the best of friends. All they really need is each other; together they go to clubs and stay out late. Aurora is the wild child, the golden girl who everyone wants to be and to be with — including the narrator. The narrator offers loyalty, love, fidelity, but she knows she doesn’t shine like Aurora. “People like Aurora don’t have to live with consequences.

And then — Jack. And who is Jack interested in, who does he want? The narrator. She loves Jack, he loves her, and she tries to fight that insecurity and jealousy that makes her wonder about Aurora, and why Jack didn’t pick Aurora, — if I were Jack, she thinks, I’d pick Aurora.

I don’t want to call this a triangle: it’s deeper and more complicated than that. A “triangle” would diminish that.

I love the narrator’s relationship with Jack. Aurora is her best friend and a soul mate; but Jack is a lover, the one who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. Her love, her passion, her desire was so wonderfully shown.

And her poor mother, Cass! Cass, who in some ways is seeing herself as a teenager and what do you do when your daughter follows in your footsteps? How do you tell her to say no when you, yourself, said yes yes yes at that age? Cass is doing her best to be a good mother, and her sacrifices have included the friendship and financial security of being Mia’s friend.

What happens next is one of two things. It depends on how you want to read it.

In one, dark creatures from before time still lurk around our world, offering deals to those willing to make trades. They want Aurora; they want Jack. The narrator is determined to save those she loves from hell. “None of the creatures from that world understand the way human emotions work. They’re all mimicking what they see in us. They can’t create things. They can only steal from us. They’re forever crossing over to wreak havoc because they’re jealous.

In the other, well, those creatures and deals aren’t real. What is real? Drugs and ambition, and that addiction is as real a hell and temptation as any devil. That someone who lives for music will do whatever is needed for that music. And anything else is a hallucination of drugs and need. And those creatures? Those are us, the consumers of other’s crafts.

Either way? And textually, there is more to support the first reading — either way, I love, love, love this book. I love how the narrator loves both Aurora and Jack, and how her insecurity is based not so much in how she views herself as how she views Aurora.

And, I like the way race figures into this book. The narrator is white; Aurora and Jack are not. Neither is the narrator’s boss, Raoul. At one point, the narrator is talking about her love and concern for her friends and Raoul brings skin color into the equation, pointing out her privilege and how her wanting to “save” them is partly her deciding what she wants for Aurora and Jack matters more to her than what Aurora and Jack want for themselves and how she cannot know what it is they want and need: “Look at her. Look at both of them. Do you ever think about what a curse it might be, to look like that? To know that no matter what you were made of, no matter what you did with your life, no one would ever see past your face? Your skin?” 

The narrator’s reaction is, but I love Jack! And I love Aurora! She wants to save them! And Raoul asks her to think about what it is he has said, and what she’s still saying. And this is why I like my theory that there are no real dark creatures and hell, just life, because what Jack is choosing is not a deal with a devil for his music, but rather, he is choosing a life where his music comes first, over love. 

And — the ending!

I love this book; I love the writing; I love that it’s the reader’s choice as to whether or not to believe that Cass is a witch; I love the complicated look at love and lust, ambition, family. So, yes a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Bonus: The paperback copy I read included a sample chapter for McCarry’s next book, Dirty Wings, due out Spring 2014. It’s the story of Mia and Cass as teens.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; author guest post at YA Highway; author interview at X O Jane.


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