Although it’s a little bit darker than most Women’s Fiction or Chick Lit, Riding With the Queen is nonetheless a book that should appeal to many readers of those genres. The John Hiatt quote that’s used as a preface hooked me from page one, and the heroine’s brash, honest first person narrative kept me reading far into the night. With the blues as its soundtrack, the book occasionally delves into the seamier side of life, but ultimately it’s all about hope and forgiveness.
It’s literally the end of the road for Tallie Beck. Seventeen years after leaving home, the aspiring singer has been dumped by her latest band with no other offers in sight. Her agent arranges for her to audition at a piano bar – how humiliating! – in her hometown of Denver, so Tallie reluctantly slinks back there to face the mentally ill mother and angry younger sister she left behind years ago when she ran away with her musician boyfriend, convinced they were on the verge of becoming the Next Big Thing.
As Tallie notes, Denver is no musical Mecca, but it’s a place to lie low for a while before she moves on again. A few drinks and some meaningless sex will get her through it, as they’ve helped dull her pain for so long. But Denver turns out to be more than a quick layover. Her married sister Jane has a mouthy but appealing ten year daughter who inexplicably comes to admire her aunt, even if her hair is falling out from too many cheap dye jobs. Tallie’s mother Lee has finally found the help she needed for her bipolar disorder and is a well-known local artist and art patron. Tallie’s ex-husband, who dumped her when he became a 1980’s heavy metal rock star, is back in Denver with big plans for a comeback. But there’s another man in the picture – Perry, one of Lee’s “projects,” a formerly homeless man with beautiful blue eyes and a few skeletons in his own closet. With the help of Big Gal Sal, a long-dead blues singer whose ghostly appearances function as Tallie’s conscience, Tallie might finally learn to stop running from the past.
Debut author Jennie Shortridge shows a remarkably mature talent for creating a heroine with an authentic, unique voice. In flashbacks interspersed throughout the book, Tallie describes the harrowing childhood she and Jane survived with no father and an unstable mother. Shortridge knows that the reader has to understand and empathize with how these experiences shaped Tallie, because her self-destructive and selfish behavior continues for much of the novel, rendering her unlikable at several points. Shortridge just barely accomplishes her goal; I rooted for Tallie to get her act together but I also wanted to shake her every time she hit the bottle or fell into another one-night stand.
Music has always been Tallie’s refuge, and her interactions with ghostly mentor Big Gal Sal are one of the novel’s many strengths. It’s a testament to Shortridge’s skills that Sal feels like a fully realized character even though she’s been dead since the day Tallie was born. Shortridge’s personal experiences with a manic-depressive parent helped her create an accurate portrayal of Lee’s disease and her continued struggle to balance creativity with sanity.
The only character that doesn’t have the impact he should is Perry, the mystery man who represents Tallie’s chance for a healthy relationship. Shortridge doesn’t devote enough pages to their positive interactions, so when Tallie inevitably screws up and puts the relationship at risk, her anguish doesn’t fully resonate with the reader.
When Tallie’s musical muse returns, after deserting her in the face of her increasing drunkenness, it’s a memorable moment, and Shortridge’s own musical skills render Tallie’s original lyrics heartfelt without being clichéd or cheesy. After reading several books that depended on other people’s well-known songs to make their point, it’s a breath of fresh air to encounter an author who creates her own music (in fact, Big Gal Sal and Tallie’s songs are available for download at Shortridge’s website).
Riding with the Queen is an extremely impressive debut, filled with struggling but admirable characters, symbolism that illustrates the author’s themes without hitting the reader over the head, and of course the power of blues music. I’ll be on the lookout for Shortridge’s next novel; like Tallie, she’s definitely on the verge of better things.