Downtown Press is rapidly becoming the home for novels about music and mix tapes. While at first the idea was intriguing (see Getting Over Jack Wagner and The Song Reader), it now feels formulaic. DP’s October release, Liner Notes by debut novelist Emily Franklin, hits some high notes, but for the most part it’s like a Top 40 radio station – you’ve heard it before and it all sounds a little too familiar.
Laney has a collection of mix tapes that represent the different stages in her life, from childhood through graduate school. Before she starts a new job in Boston, she plans to drive cross-country by herself, listening to and processing each tape in turn. But she gains unexpected company on her journey when her mother, Annie, arrives to give Laney surprising news: the life-threatening illness that has haunted her for years is finally cured. Annie thinks a mother-daughter trip will let the two of them bond and regain the closeness they had before Annie’s illness. Laney, who has kept an emotional distance from friends and family for years, sullenly resents the intrusion, but her mother won’t take no for an answer.
As they drive, Laney gradually opens up to her mother, at first grudgingly and eventually enthusiastically, with the help of the mix tapes. The stories she recounts are of relationships that never quite worked out and friendships that soured. By the time Laney and Annie reach Boston, Laney realizes that she has to break out of her self-imposed isolation, so that the mix tapes of the future don’t have the same melancholy associations as the ones from her past.
Despite the stagy, artificial gimmick of the mix tapes, Liner Notes does have its charms, including the mention of several obscure artists and songs that I hadn’t thought of in 20 years or more. If the names Steely Dan, the English Beat and Voice of the Beehive mean anything to you, you might enjoy the nostalgia too, although there are no lyrics to provide clues to some of the more ambiguous titles. But the characters from Laney’s memories, especially the various Mr. Wrongs, don’t make much of an impression; they’re all near-misses that blur together after a while. We get the message that Laney, traumatized by her mother’s illness, avoided meaningful relationships to keep from getting hurt – it doesn’t need to be repeated over and over again. Once Laney and Annie have reached the inevitable reconciliation, Mr. Right comes out of nowhere for a happy ending that feels very much tacked on.
Other than the unburdening of her past, Laney’s cross-country journey with her mother is fairly uneventful. I know Liner Notes isn’t trying to be Thelma and Louise, but a little more adventure along the way other than a flat tire would have livened up the story. A minor subplot involves Laney discovering how much she values the Judaism that her parents never emphasized; it was easy for me to identify with these issues but those unfamiliar with terms like bris and afikomen may be confused during certain scenes.
Franklin does capture the conflicting emotions that Laney felt during her 12 year experience with a seriously ill mother – the anger, guilt, fear and concern – and she does a good job at making Annie more than a clichéd Jewish mother. I didn’t come to care about Laney as much as I should have, but if I met her at a music store I definitely would check out what she was listening to. Ultimately, Liner Notes feels very much like a debut novel; let’s hope Franklin can do better next time without relying on a gimmick.