Music can be incredibly powerful––how many of us have teared up at a sad song, jumped for joy when our favorite tune came on, or gotten lost in our memories when an old album started to play? Author Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne is a music lover herself, and demonstrates that in her debut novel Holding on to Nothing, which is named after a Dolly Parton song. Here, she shares six of her favorite novels with music at their core.
Some books have no music at all, while others mention it briefly, almost as an aside. But in some books, music plays such a critical role that it is inextricable from the plot or the characters. Removing the music would remove the beating heart of the book. In this list, I explore my six favorite novels with music pulsing through the pages.
Roaming through what’s left of America after a flu pandemic has killed 99.9% of the world’s population, a ragtag group of musicians and actors, called the Traveling Symphony, stage performances in the communities that have emerged in the 20 years since societal collapse. The Traveling Symphony’s burning desire to play music, to share their songs and art, propels the action of this dystopian tale. Ignoring that call would certainly be the safer choice in this depopulated, dangerous world. But, at every stop of their journey, they ask: What is life if there is no music or art? The main character, Kirsten Raymonde, and her fellow “actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows” give up safety, and, in some cases, their lives, to “cast a spell [on] the lives they brushed up against…people who spent all their time engaged in the tasks of survival.” These musicians live by the motto (stolen from Star Trek, but burnished to truth here) painted on their caravan: “Survival Is Insufficient.” Music’s ability to contain the memories of the past and the hope of a future inspires those remaining to continue. “If there are again towns with streetlights,” one character wonders at the end, “if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”
Music suffuses every scene in Angie Thomas’ second book after the enormously successful The Hate U Give. Sixteen-year old Bri wants to be a rapper and her desire to succeed at that famously tough game is what gives this book its driving force. Following in the footsteps of her father, murdered just when his own rap career was taking off, Bri must wrestle with school, getting her heat shut off (“it happens”), unscrupulous managers, and the legacy of her father. When Bri takes the stage at her first rap battle, she’s so good you can hear the beat as you read: “You confused like a foreigner. I’ll explain it with ease:/ You’re just a casualty in the reality of the madness of Bri./No fallacies, I spit maladies, causin’ fatalities.” Thomas fully rounds out Bri’s character, imbuing her on every page with ambition, ambivalence, confusion, and need. (The building blocks of every good musician, I’d wager.) With those desires dueling inside her, she makes plenty of choices she comes to regret, but in the end, when it counts, she ignores all the influences in her life and does exactly the right thing.
The driving beat of this novel, part of a growing canon of trans young adult fiction, is the thrum of the drumming of Peyton Honeycutt, a born musician. Peyton is the kind of character who speaks fully only through music, and he only ever feels at home when surrounded by the instruments and music of his uncle’s music shop. Slashing through a sad Southern life that we know but haven’t seen from this perspective before, Peyton falls in love, fights racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and faces his demons as he transitions. “‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ ended and so did our trip,” Peyton says of the summer vacation that wasn’t. On making out with the girl he loves in the band storage rooms, Peyton notes, “Tara and I [shared] a symphony of kisses, some harsh, some soft, surrounded by a parade of broken music stands.” Tara speaks the truth to him (in the only language he can understand) when she sings the song she wrote: “I wish that he could love himself.”
This novel resets the bar for books with music as their beating heart. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s inimitable faux oral-history makes for an immersive, fast-paced read about a fictional 1970s rock band on their way to being “the biggest in the world.” Daisy Jones, a gorgeous solo singer for whom singing comes easy, is thrust into what first seems like an unholy professional marriage with Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six. But out of their utterly combustible relationship comes music that shakes the entire world to its core. Stuffed with spot-on details of the rock-star life—the drugs, the sex, the recording sessions, destroyed hotel rooms, quickie marriages, the jealousies—the foundation of the story is about love, and the faith it takes to truly love another. Music opens the eyes of every character in this stunning book to those truths. Daisy says, “It is what I have always loved about music. Not the sounds or the crowds or the good times as much as the words—the emotions, and the stories, the truth—that you can let flow right out of your mouth. Music can dig, you know? It can take a shovel to your chest and just start digging until it hits something.”
Imagine The Shining meets a high school band competition. Only a self-proclaimed “music nerd” could go this deep into the psyches of the high school musicians, still full of possibility, ambition, and belief in the core notion that they are “special,” and their teachers, who know that the path to professional musician is littered with the disappointed tears of thousands of high school music teachers like themselves. When one of the students disappears on the snowy 15th anniversary of the murder-suicide of a bride and her groom at the now-shabby Bellweather Hotel, the assembled musicians try to find her in between rehearsals, parties, and 1000 self-discoveries. No matter the discontents or the struggles faced by the characters, music never loses its power to subsume and transform. “She leaped out into nothing and floated, held up by music,” Raccullia writes of Natalie, one of the almost-good-enough music teachers. Racculia’s sense of character is so strong that when she notes that Rabbit Hatmaker, a twin and senior bassoonist, “may have been baptized Presbyterian, but music was his true religion,” you don’t scoff, you believe. At the final concert, Rabbit is overcome with the power of music: “This is why. This is why he plays, why loves, why he listens. It isn’t even a high—a high is too low—it is a synchronicity with the universe. Physical proof of the three-part harmony between body and soul and song, all three living, dying, resonating.”
Reading this will transport you to the best, most insane night ever in the New York music scene. Music is so fundamental to the events of this book that the epic first date between Nick and Norah wouldn’t happen without these two chasing music while they chase each other. “The chords swirling around us are becoming a tornado, tightening and tightening and tightening, and we are at the center of it, and we are the center of each other,” Nick says. Nick and Norah take the reader along for the musical and love adventures, and you find yourself dancing along to the music of the fictional band Where’s Fluffy?, playing in the background. As morning comes, the book shines with that frantic, amazed exhaustion that only comes from having stayed out all night, the kind that leads to the big realizations, like when Nick stares at Norah at the end: “I always think of each night as a song. Or each moment as a song. But now I’m seeing we don’t live in a single song. We move from song to song, from lyric to lyric, from chord to chord. There is no ending here. It’s an infinite playlist.”
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne grew up reading, writing, and shooting in East Tennessee. After graduating from Amherst College, she became a writer and a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Her nonfiction work has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and GlobalPost, among others. She is a graduate of Grub Street’s MFA-level Novel Incubator program, under Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders, where Holding On To Nothing was workshopped.