In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Complex and heartbreaking, Rachel Howard’s novel The Risk of Us is one of the year’s most striking debuts.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
“It’s a triumph of a book that captures an essential truth not just about how it feels to foster an already formed human being, but about the fragile, shape-shifting quality of any family. Raising a child is always a leap of faith, motivated by love, which is something this narrator has stores of.”
I am thrilled to be asked to make this playlist because The Risk of Us had a soundtrack from the start—one that gave me a vision for the shape of the story and led me to the ending. I want to shout from the mountaintops that this novel owes everything to Sufjan Stevens’ album Carrie & Lowell. Maybe this is true for a lot of art made between 2015 and today, since that album is so miraculous.
My neighbor gave me Carrie & Lowell shortly after its release, in the summer of 2015. I didn’t know the story behind it, that Sufjan’s mother essentially abandoned him when he was a toddler, and died in 2012, and that this music was his way through a complicated grief. I didn’t feel I needed to understand the full narrative behind the lyrics to understand the core of the songs.
I had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Sierra Nevada foothills, far from my home church, Grace Cathedral, and from the San Francisco Ballet—two places where I used to regularly have aesthetic experiences that I felt put me in touch with the holy. I had been looking for music that would put me in touch with the holy again. And from the first notes of the opener, “Death With Dignity,” this album felt holy. For that reason, I didn’t listen to it too many times. I saved it for when I felt dead to mystery and pain and transcendence. I only listened to it when I was alone.
Then, in late fall of 2016, the idea for The Risk of Us came: It would be a short, spare novel about a woman and her husband trying to adopt a young girl out of foster care. It would start when the child moved into their home and end when the adoption either was or wasn’t “finalized”—when they either made it as a family or broke. I didn’t know which way the story’s turning point would go.
I thought of “Carrie & Lowell” immediately. Now that I know the story alluded to within Stevens’ album, this makes sense. Emotionally, within the novel, I wanted to stay attuned to the grief of the little girl in foster care, the pain of how she had lost her birth mother (all the more painful because the birth mother had been affectionate but also abusive); I wanted to keep my finger on the livewire of the simultaneous danger and necessity, for her, of connecting with a new family. There is pain for other characters in this novel, too—for the girl’s new foster mother and her husband, there’s the pain of wanting so badly to help this little girl and being powerless in the face of her outbursts and panic attacks. There’s the pain and guilt and fear of failing her. But the little girl Maresa’s pain was primary in my imagination; hers was the pain I wanted to house and honor on the page. And I think Maresa’s pain was very much like Sufjan’s.
I’ll start with the specific track that helped me see the shape of the novel, and then I’ll go on to some incidental music I think would also be used in a movie version, from other artists.
Sufjan Stevens, “Should Have Known Better”
I don’t want to give away too much of the ending of The Risk of Us, but there is a tremendous tonal shift at the turning point for this family. It shocked me to arrive at it. I knew the tonal shift was right when I got there but still I felt, can the tone of the story really shift that much? The key change at the 2:40 mark in “Should Have Known Better” gave me the guts to carry the tonal shift out. The song moves in an instant from minor to major, but the earlier darkness isn’t forgotten or obliterated. The same melodic refrains recur, with subtle transfigurations. And in the lyrics, hopefulness is found not in denying the past, but seeing glimpses of the future: my brother had a daughter, Stevens sings, the beauty that she brings/illumination. Deep pain still surges after the key change: the breakers in the bar/no reason to live. But the way through is by being with what is: don’t back down/concentrating on seeing, Stevens tells himself. All of that felt true for the ending of the novel.
Maurice Durufle, Requiem
This would be the instrumental music for some of the montages in the story. Durufle’s requiem is one of only 11 works he completed over an 84-year-life, but by many critics’ estimations it is nearly perfect. Personally I love it because it seems to pulsate—and though the “Libera me” (“Deliver me”) section of the mass is tempestuous and fearful, other sections are beautiful like clear-running streams.
Verdi, “La Traviata”
In one of the most tenuous times for the family, when the little girl is having panic attacks and rages often, the foster mother takes a trip to San Francisco to see the opera and hears echoes of Maresa’s seven-year-old operatics in the soprano’s voice. In the novel, the narrator/mother goes to see “Tosca,” but actually in my imagination she’s seeing “La Traviata,” particularly the final scene when all is too late for our heroine, so much love has been wasted.
The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, “Despair”
This track is here mostly because I love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and lead singer Karen O. is my hero. But it’s appropriate because Karen’s singing, when she’s not screaming (which she doesn’t on this track), is like a mother delivering a lullaby, but with a kick-ass beat from one of rock’s best drummers, Brian Chase, to pump the blood while you coo. This song captures the connection between the adopting mom and the little girl Maresa, I think—their shared awareness of the comingling of pain and hope: Oh despair, you’re always there. But also: Through the darkness and the light/some sun has got to rise.
The Beatles, “Yellow Submarine” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
These appear very briefly in The Risk of Us and in my imaginary movie of the book. The little girl’s teacher uses “Yellow Submarine” as a first grade sing-along, and when the foster dad finds this out he gets the sheet music so he can play it for the girl at home. Then near the end of the novel, the adopting mom walks Maresa to school, surprised that the girl now wants to hold her hand—and singing The Beatles.
The xx, “Dangerous”
This would be the high-energy outro for the movie version of the novel, the dance-y music that comes in right at the last shot of the laughing family and plays over the credits. The story’s over, so now we can be playful and a little winking about the risk these three people took. They say you’re dangerous, but I don’t care/ I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared.
Rachel Howard and The Risk of Us links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
weekly music release lists