In “Perfect Tunes,” Emily Gould’s second novel, aspiring musician Laura leaves her Ohio hometown for New York City, moving in with her best friend Callie, who is less musically talented but also remarkably beautiful. Towed along by Callie’s charisma and social ease, Laura meets a band of fellow musicians, the Clips, whose rise to relative stardom allows her an entree into their world. She begins dating one of the Clips, Dylan, a generally unwashed, noncommittal, vaguely friendly man to whom she is fiercely attracted. Her surprising discovery — she and Dylan have conceived a daughter — surfaces shortly after Dylan’s death in a swimming pool.
These pivotal events take place in 2001, which Gould makes clear when Laura, Callie, Dylan and one of his bandmates flee the city on Sept. 13, seeking comfort away from the city. The novel handles this elegantly, from a suitable vantage: “Being around a mom, anyone’s mom, seemed like a good idea.”
It’s not quite comfort they find in Dylan’s New England childhood home — his mother, Daisy, is a pitiful figure, and one the novel itself seems to regard with distaste. Daisy’s house features prominently for a second time in the novel’s denouement, but in the interim, she and Dylan hardly exist on the page. Similarly, Laura’s family back in Ohio is dismissed for having “tacky” things and being “extremely … religious.”
The novel’s space is mostly reserved for characters with a self-assured coolness born of beauty, talent or charm. (Even Laura, who occasionally doubts these qualities in herself, collects their advantages nonetheless.)
Gould offers delicious if unsurprising details of Laura’s early 20s in the early aughts: hangovers, ramen, wine like “sugared gasoline.” After she gives birth to Marie, the novel’s focus shifts to the laboriousness of parenting, and the pain of setting artistic ambitions aside. This catalog of labor includes a lengthy cinematic scene of mother-and-child sharing a stomach illness; later, with much greater resonance, Laura simply reflects on how much work she does, on how she sees everything in terms of work. Gazing at a photo stream, she thinks, “someone had fanned out that avocado …, given birth to that adorable baby, and picked out the organic cotton onesie and then buttoned it up despite his thrashing.”
Laura is most vividly present on the page when she considers her exhaustion, which only deepens when her family expands to four: her husband, Matt, and his daughter, Kayla.
The later sections of the novel include adolescent Marie’s point of view. Marie, depressed and rebellious, leaves New York to surprise her grandmother, Daisy, without telling anyone. Upon learning this, Laura initially stays back in Brooklyn — a somewhat puzzling reaction — but at Kayla’s urging, she undertakes the trip north to find her daughter. Daisy is a comical blend of pathetic and wicked — Kayla actually refers to her as a “witch” — and Laura’s eventual show of empathy, mother-to-mother, reads as mildly perfunctory. This coolness toward Daisy — as well as to Dylan’s memory — is also one of the novel’s strengths. Gould doesn’t shy away from the significant imperfections in these relationships, and the novel benefits greatly from her candor.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Emily Gould.
Publisher: Avid Reader Press, 270 pages, $26.