By Laura Barnett
The “Best Of” compilation can be a tricky thing to get right. When it works, it’s a feel-good collection of a band’s greatest triumphs. When it doesn’t, it’s a flattened assortment of too-familiar anthems with none of the nuance of the B-sides. The British writer Laura Barnett takes on this balancing act in her expansive new novel, “Greatest Hits,” a musical bildungsroman structured around that familiar time capsule, the retrospective album.
The book takes place over the course of a single day with flashbacks interspersed, à la “Mrs. Dalloway,” as a 60-something musician named Cass Wheeler looks back on life and prepares for a party to celebrate the release of her career capstone record. The Woolfian homage isn’t the only device at play — song lyrics append each chapter, and Barnett tapped the singer Kathryn Williams to create a real-life (and quite lovely) companion album to the book.
The setting is the English countryside, where the houses have names like Atterley and the stonewalled gardens are laced with wisteria. Cass is emerging from a reclusive spell with more than a little self-doubt. “LPs and hit parades and the slick-haired kids queuing outside the record shops. … That was the world she belonged to; who knew why this shiny new one should have any use for her?”
Cass’s rocky childhood as the only daughter of a stoic vicar is a touchstone throughout the narrative. Her mother chafes at domestic life and abandons the family with a regretful note when Cass is just 10. The best times of Cass’s adolescent years are spent with her father’s bohemian sister, Lily, and her husband in a home that feels a world apart from the stifling vicarage. It’s here that Cass discovers music, first in the jazz records her aunt and uncle play at parties and later through the guitar they give her. Cass loses herself in the instrument, “the strings raising welts on her fingers that turned, gradually, into calluses, and then softened, until they seemed to have become one with the wood and steel.”
But where a pretty young girl is just finding her voice, there’s often a man in the wings ready to make his entrance. Longhaired, suede-booted Ivor Tait quickly captures Cass’s attention with his chiseled cheekbones and soulful compliments. “I’ve been on the circuit a few years,” he purrs. “Heard a lot of singers. You’ve got something, Cass.” She abandons her schooling to tour with Ivor and life becomes a blur of “hot lights and smoke and faces,” and it’s not long before record labels are courting her for a solo career. She hesitates only briefly, but “she already knew that she would not walk away from this; that inside her, there was steel, and ice, and the unignorable voice of her ambition.”
Everything changes with Cass’s breakout success, and the second half of the novel unfolds like a glossy rock biopic full of debauchery and quick edits. We hear of Ivor’s requisite drug use and affairs and, later, Cass’s tumultuous years caring for their daughter. At times the narrative can veer into cliché, with predictable vignettes packed together like the grooves on a record. The book’s most original sections see Cass reckoning with the tightrope walk of being an artist and a mother, asking herself whether creativity and child-rearing can ever peacefully coexist. She describes it plainly to a childhood friend, wondering if “all the urgency she had once channeled into her music had rerouted itself into her daughter.” “Greatest Hits” offers no easy answers, but for Cass the only choice is to play on.
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