In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michelle Richmond’s novel The Wonder Test is a captivating literary page-turner.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“A gripping blend of danger and sharp social commentary on high-stakes education, the 1%, and suburban tropes: imagine a coffee date with Lisa Lutz’s Spellmans and Tom Perotta’s suburbanites in a sun-drenched Twin Peaks.”
Sometimes, you don’t really get to know a place until you leave it. I began writing The Wonder Test in 2016, but it didn’t really come together until I had put five thousand miles between me and the small town I’ve called home for more than a decade.
Between San Francisco and Silicon Valley exist a lot of small towns you’ve probably never heard of, sandwiched between the ocean and the bay, bordered by mountains and beaches. Each of these towns has its own climate, its own personality. To the North is San Francisco, with is fog and frigid summers, its iconic bridges and artistic history. To the South is Silicon Valley–sunny, shiny, high-pressure, and rapidly evolving, home to a different kind of creativity. Although my town is located 20 miles south of San Francisco, it isn’t a suburb in the traditional sense of the word. You can easily get lost in the hills, where there are no streetlights and no sidewalks.
When my family relocated to Paris a few years ago, I had a complete draft of The Wonder Test, a suburban suspense novel inspired by the competitive, high-stakes vibe of my corner of the Bay Area. I planned to quickly finish the revision and start a new novel. But soon after we arrived in France, the gilets jaunes protests erupted and went on for a year of Saturdays. Part of what they were protesting for was, in essence, the right to work less. In our Haussmann apartment, with riot police lining up in formation on the street below and water cannons booming just a few blocks away on the Champs Elysees, the revision took on a new life. Immersed in a language I could barely comprehend, adrift in a noisy, restless city where I had no social ties, I burrowed into The Wonder Test and saw my tree-lined, peaceful Northern California town—not to mention the double-edged sword of American inventiveness and American competitiveness–with fresh eyes.
When I think of my past novels, the music I was listening to during the drafting of the books always comes back to me. No matter where I was in the house, no matter where we were living, I could hear music drifting in from the speakers in the kitchen. With The Marriage Pact, it was Leonard Cohen’s Live in London album; with The Year of Fog, it was a great instrumental mix including Lesley Spencer, Jonathan Richman, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and others. For The Wonder Test, it was those same kitchen speakers, thousands of miles away in a Paris apartment, endlessly playing a mix of songs I had put together when the novel was nothing more than an idea of a West Coast town in existential crisis, an inkling of a mystery. Some of the music made it directly into the book, while other songs are there in spirit.
So, here are ten songs from that playlist:
1. What’s Good – The Thesis, Lou Reed (from the album Magic and Loss): The Wonder Test is a suspense story about suburban pressures, high-stakes education, and espionage. The novel’s theme may be best captured by the Rudyard Kipling line, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” It’s about figuring out what is important to you and allowing that joy to pull you through difficult times. Lou Reed, of course, summed up the feeling more perfectly and in fewer words here when he wrote, “What’s good? Life’s good. But not fair at all.”
2. Love on Parade, The Mendoza Line (from the album 30 Year Low): Timothy Bracy’s lyrics and the music of The Mendoza Line have played a role in more of my books than any other music. The song, like the novel, deals with finding a way through loss. “They found us out in Pavillions of doubt and Cathedrals of longing and death without warning. The room readied itself for the transfer of power when you walked right through in your penultimate hour.” Yes, the music itself is beautiful, but beyond that the layered symmetries of the rhymes just kill me. In a perfect world, The Mendoza Line would still be together, putting out an album a year.
3. Frederick, Patti Smith (from the album Wave): It’s a grown-up love song, simple and intoxicating. Patti Smith once said “the simplest song is the hardest to write.” Of “Frederick,” written for her husband, she said, “I always wanted to get this one right.” In The Wonder Test, FBI agent Lina Connerly has relocated to Silicon Valley with her teenaged son Rory, and her recently deceased husband Fred is always there just off the page. Early in the book, Rory’s new girlfriend, a French girl with an offbeat sense of style, appears at the curb in a Patti Smith T-shirt, dredging up memories of Fred in an instant. In some ways, a perfect love is just a little bit depressing because you know it will never happen again.
4. Here in California, Dave Alvin (from the album West of the West): I included this song in another version by another artist seven years ago for a Largehearted Boy playlist for the novel Golden State. The playlist on the IPod always changes, but this song somehow remains. I’m not sure if anything better captures the feeling of Northern California than this Kate Wolf original. “Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vine / There’s no gold, I thought I’d warn you / But the hills turn brown in the summertime.” California is great, really great, but it’s never perfect and, if you’re not from here, it’s never quite what you expect it to be.
5. Stir it Up, Bob Marley (from the album Catch a Fire): Deep into The Wonder Test, the narrator and her son Rory, following a lead, escape their claustrophobic, competitive town and take a road trip to the Russian River. Although it’s not even 100 miles north, it’s an entirely different world with a different pace, different rules, and a different way of life. Early morning, barely awake, Lina steps into a nearly empty coffee shop a barista named Sunshine is dancing to Bob Marley’s “Stir it Up.” He makes a latte, drawing a perfect rendition of a vintage VW in the foam. Maybe there’s no one named Sunshine working at a cafe in Guerneville, but if you happen to be driving through, you should stop at the Coffee Bazaar on Armstrong Woods Road and order latte. I can’t guarantee that a VW bus will appear in the crema, but I’m pretty sure that Bob Marley will be playing loudly, and somebody will be swaying and radiating peace.
6. Inside of Me, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul (from the album Men Without Women): The Wonder. Years ago, I lived in an attached house in San Francisco. The adjoining home was owned by a quasi-famous psychiatrist who had written a long, complex study on the three-person, or “triangular” family. Each morning, I would see the psychiatrist’s solitary son walking past our house and down to the beach. This image stuck with me while I was writing The Wonder Test, which indirectly explores the dynamics of a one-child family. In the three-person family, each connection is unique and important. Late in the novel, we learn that Lina’s husband Fred has left behind 18 mixed discs for his son, and he has written personal notes about every song. Here’s what Rory’s father has to say about this Little Steven’s “Inside of Me”: “So many words here and not a single one hits a wrong note. Little Steven never made another album like this, but he didn’t have to.”
7. Forever Young, Bob Dylan (from the album Planet Waves). We all have songs we avoid, songs so painful that a stray note strikes straight to the heart. At one point in the novel, Lina and Rory are in the car, driving towards what might not be good news. On the disc player in their car, Bob Dylan is singing a song from Planet Waves. Lina instinctively switches the music off. Being a profiler within the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, she understands “triggers” and wants to protect her son from a lifetime of associating this song with a horrible incident. As for the song, Bob Dylan said he kept it floating around his head for five years before he ever wrote it down. Recorded with The Band in 1973, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, though probably none better than Dylan’s performance in The Band’s film The Last Waltz.
8. Anji, Davy Graham (from the EP 3/4 AD): Songs often appear in my early drafts, only to disappear by the final edit. For me, the music sets the scene in my mind, and the rest sometimes follows. If I’ve done my job, by the final draft, the mention of the song may no longer be necessary. The song is that part of the glacier you don’t see, but without what lies beneath the glacier would be a different shape entirely. In The Wonder Test, during a meeting at a restaurant, off in the distance, the dishwasher is listening to this infectious, early 1960s instrumental by Davy Graham. No words, just his acoustic guitar, circling in patterns, hypnotically creating an unmistakable mood. Davy Graham wrote the song for his girlfriend when he was 19. Bert Jansch once said of Graham, “He was a hard man to have a conversation with, but he knew how to play the guitar.”
9. Where Have Those Days Gone?, Cracker (from the album Berkeley to Bakersfield): One of my all-time favorites. Perfected in a 2014 re-recording for the album Berkeley to Bakersfield, this song captures the rinsing melancholy of the trip from the Bay Area up the coast and into another world. The beautiful instrumental opening always catches my attention when it floats in from some other part of the house.
10. Hold On, Tom Waits (from the album Mule Variations): A playlist for a book that wanders through Sonoma County and along the Russian River wouldn’t be complete without a Tom Waits song. I always liked the line “go ahead and call the cops / you don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Years ago, Tom Waits said in a Newsweek article “Everything’s holding on. I thought that was a real positive thing to say. It was an optimistic song. Take my hand, stand right here, hold on. We wrote that together, Kathleen and I, and that felt good. Two people who are in love writing a song like that about being in love.”
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels and story collections, including The Marriage Pact, Golden State, The Year of Fog, and Hum. She received the Truman Capote Prize for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Short Story. Her books have been published in thirty languages. She lives with her husband and son in Northern California.