Music was in my blood.
It’s quite fitting that Emily Black, the teenager at the center of Stephanie Kuehnert’s novel, makes that declaration early on in the story since, in a way, the book demands us to ask what else could be swimming around in us that shapes our identity. Specifically, it wonders what influence our bloodline has on our person and, eventually, on our future.
In the case of Emily Black, she resembles her mother Louisa, who abandoned her as a baby for reasons unbeknownst to her though she suspects that it was Louisa’s yearning for a rock n’ roll lifestyle that drove her away from their sleepy Iowa town. Emily takes after Louisa in her extreme rebellious streak, her pride at being a social outcast and, above all, her passion for music, especially punk. When lacking any sense of belonging, Emily can turn to The Clash, Patti Smith or The Social Distortion to compensate for her loneliness. When words can’t sufficiently express the anger and resentment simmering inside, she can unleash it all onstage.
The question, of course, is whether Emily has inherited Louisa’s template or if she has taken it upon herself to emulate the mother she longs for. Reason would seem to point that it’s probably a little of both, though the novel makes it quite clear that Emily attempts to establish a connection to her by adopting as many of her rumoured traits as possible:
Yeah, I didn’t just like that legend, I needed it. I drew my strength from it . That’s why I’d never questioned it. My mother wasn’t there to hug me and comfort me and bandage my wounds when I fell down, but at least, I knew she was beautiful, fierce, and driven by rock n’ roll, and that gave me something to aspire to.
And for a while, Emily does chase the dream of Louisa as legend. The problem begins when she, unknowingly, starts to repeat her mother’s most self-destructive tendencies. As a reader, we’re given different sides of this story. On the one hand, we hear from Emily as she goes from small town bad girl to big city rock star. On the other, we’re privy to Louisa’s wanderings throughout the US and the tragic events that led her to flee Iowa, a past that she can never seem to shake off no matter how far away she gets. For most of the book, it does seem as if the narrative is driving home the point that there is no escaping the cycle of dysfunction that is bestowed to us by our parents. Louisa and Emily seem to be treading on the same well-worn path of questionable promiscuity, substance abuse and domestic violence.
Kudos to the book for not giving us any easy answers to the haunting question of repeating our family’s mistakes for all eternity. However, hidden underneath the struggles of the mother-daughter pair, there is the sense that the message might be something like this: We are always defined by our past but that doesn’t always mean that we have to allow it out to determine our fate. The power of choice is, after all, what separates the two from becoming one and the same person.