Book Review: All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry All Our Pretty Songs - Sarah McCarry

Published: July 30th 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Source: local library

Synopsis (Goodreads): The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.

My thoughts: I loved this book, and it’s a book my teenage self would have devoured. But it is not a book for everyone.

The prose is lush, descriptive, dreamy. The words, the sentences, the paragraphs are all beautiful. Some people mind find if overwhelming or overdone. This isn’t a plot-driven novel. I ended the book wondering what was real, what really happened, and I was okay with that, but I imagine many readers will be dissatisfied.

Not sure if this is your thing? Here’s a sample paragraph.

“You think that the world we live in is ordinary. We make noise and static to fill the empty spaces where ghosts live. We let other people grow our food, bleach our clothes. We seal ourselves in, clean the dirt from our skins, eat of animals whose blood does not stain our hands. We long ago left the ways of our ancestors, oracles and blood sacrifice, traffic with the spirit world, listening for the voices out of stones and trees. But maybe sometimes you have felt the uncanny, alone at night in a dark wood, or waiting by the edge of the ocean for the tide to come in. We have paved over the ancient world, but that does not mean we have erased it.”

I loved the focus on the relationship between these two young women—Aurora and the unnamed narrator, and I take issue with the synopsis where it suggests that the boy “comes between them” because that’s not exactly how this works. Something bigger than the boy, an otherworldly force or the very real pull of addiction and the narrator’s own insecurity is what really drives them apart.

One important aspect that the synopsis doesn’t give away is that the novel features POC characters. Jack, the incomprehensibly beautiful guitar player, remarks on how the narrator experiences the world differently than he does because of her whiteness. The narrator’s boss and mentor, Raoul, discusses how he negotiates his identity between many labels: brown, queer, poet. These issues are discussed without intruding upon the larger story.

I really enjoyed this book personally, but I wonder about how wide that appeal is and the wisdom of how it’s been categorized. All Our Pretty Songs has definite teen appeal, but it reads more like a literary novel. Although it features a teenage protagonist, the style and themes feel more adult.

Sarah McCarry definitely captures what being a teenager feels like:

“I’m a chalkboard that’s been erased over and over again until there’s nothing left but a haze of white dust. Before this I never understood how long an hour could take, how many ticks of the second hand are in a minute, how endless the space between seconds can be.”

All Our Pretty Songs is full of lines that feel so very true, that I would have totally written in stylized letters on my notebooks in high school:

“The hard way is my favorite way to learn.”

But it’s set in the 90s and most cultural references and music will be lost on most Real Actual Teens of today. Those who do get them are the kind of teenagers who aren’t afraid to read adult fiction. It has language, sex, and drug use that make it more appropriate for older readers. This isn’t a book I’ll hand to a 6th grader in the library.

I’m also not sure why it needs to be a series. This is a slim novel, and I would have much preferred to read the story all at once rather than in installments. There are many threads of the story left open, so the conclusion felt more like a turning point rather than an actual ending. There is a lot to reflect upon in this story, and doing so all at once would be much more satisfying.

All Our Pretty Songs is a breathtakingly beautiful story with lush prose full of imagery, and I highly recommend it to readers who are willing to suspend belief and are looking for fascinating characters—it just might be a better idea to wait until the entire series is out so it can be read all at once.

Second opinions:

The Book Smugglers: “All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.”

Ageless Pages: “All Our Pretty Songs has a great premise. It also can boast some truly amazing prose. When the mood strikes/the planets align/etc,. McCarry can create some truly visual and lovely writing. But that’s only about 30% of the time. The other 70%? You get overwrought melodramatic teenage angst all over the place.”

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