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Perfect Tunes

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Perfect Tunes is an intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” —STEPHANIE DANLER

Perfect Tunes is a zippy and profound story of love, loss, heredity, and par­enthood. I gulped it down, as will all mothers, New Yorkers, music fans, and lovers of quick-moving novels that are both funny and deep. I loved every page.” —EMMA STRAUB

Perfect Tunes is mind-blowing….Full of unspeakable insights, or at least I thought they were unspeakable, but there they are. Now I want everyone I know to read this book and talk about it with me.” —ELIF BATUMAN

Have you ever wondered what your mother was like before she became your mother, and what she gave up in order to have you?

It’s the early days of the new millennium, and Laura has arrived in New York City’s East Village in the hopes of recording her first album. A songwriter with a one-of-a-kind talent, she’s just beginning to book gigs with her beautiful best friend when she falls hard for a troubled but magnetic musician whose star is on the rise. Their time together is stormy and short-lived—but will reverberate for the rest of Laura’s life.

Fifteen years later, Laura’s teenage daughter, Marie, is asking questions about her father, questions that Laura does not want to answer. Laura has built a stable life in Brooklyn that bears little resemblance to the one she envisioned when she left Ohio all those years ago, and she’s taken pains to close the door on what was and what might have been. But neither her best friend, now a famous musician who relies on Laura’s songwriting skills, nor her depressed and searching daughter will let her give up on her dreams.

Funny, wise, and tenderhearted, Perfect Tunes explores the fault lines in our most important relationships, and asks whether dreams deferred can ever be reclaimed. It is a delightful and poignant tale of music and motherhood, ambition and com­promise—of life, in all its dissonance and harmony.

This reading group guide for Perfect Tunes includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Funny, wise, and tenderhearted, Perfect Tunes is a story about mothers and daughters, dreams delayed and reclaimed, and the fault lines that exist in our most important relationships. The novel is set in New York and begins in the early days of the millennium, when Laura has arrived in the East Village, hoping to record her first album. Before long, she meets Dylan, a talented but troubled musician whose star is on the rise. Their relationship is short-lived but changes Laura’s life forever. Fifteen years later, Laura has built a life for herself in Brooklyn, raising her daughter, Marie. But when the teenager starts asking questions about her father, Laura must confront the past, the future, and her own paths not taken.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. When the novel opens, Laura is twenty-two years old and has arrived in the East Village, determined to make it as a songwriter and to focus on work and herself. Where were you at twenty-two, and what were your dreams and goals for yourself?

2. Callie and Laura have known each other since high school, and Laura notes that she thinks their friendship might have begun because “Callie had seen that Laura had the potential to be someone whose prettiness and talent burnished Callie’s own.” What tone does this set for their dynamic in the novel, and do you think it is an accurate representation of how and why some friendships begin?

3. The setting of Perfect Tunes—New York City’s East Village—is described vividly throughout the opening chapters of the novel, and you can see Laura slowly begin adjusting to life there. How does she change as she continues to settle in?

4. When Laura and Dylan start seeing each other, there’s a noticeable difference in their approaches to their relationship and their feelings. What is the impression you get from both people about what they are looking for, and why do you think that despite those imbalances Laura tries to make it work?

5. From the start, it is clear that Dylan suffers from some level of addiction and personal turmoil, yet he is also a talented and charismatic musician, and Laura and others are really drawn to him. What is it about pain that seems to make artists and their work more compelling?

6. Just as Laura finds out she is pregnant, she is faced with the decision of whether to go on tour with Callie and the band, a choice she makes almost immediately. What did you think of her thought process, and what decision would you make?

7. As Laura watches Callie’s star rise, as well as her other friends succeed and make choices that change the trajectory of their lives, it seems as if she begins to question whether she too has what it takes, or if she’s merely convinced herself that she has a similar talent. Have you ever had a similar experience or doubt that you were on the right path?

8. During Laura’s trip to Philadelphia, she feels constantly torn between having time to herself and feeling as if she’s abandoned her daughter. Is this sense of guilt valid? Understandable? Has there been a moment in your own life when you felt similarly split between doing things for yourself and being present for others?

9. What did you find to be the most realistic elements and moments of Laura’s story? What about Marie’s? Is their relationship one that resonates with you? How are they similar? Different?

10. During the latter half of the novel, we see Laura meet and get married to the father of one of Marie’s classmates. What do you think of the blended family’s dynamic? How is Laura’s relationship with Matt different than her relationship with Dylan? How did Kayla and Marie’s relationship strike you?

11. At what point in the novel did Marie’s behavior become worrisome to you, as opposed to just the emotional ups and downs of a toddler and adolescent? Were you surprised to discover that she was struggling?

12. As Marie grows older, it becomes clear that information about her father’s life is a point of tension between her and her mother. Both women have valid reasons for approaching the subject the way they do, but do you think that there is a way to protect children while still giving them the answers they want?

13. When Marie runs away to visit Daisy, Dylan’s mother, what does she find? Do you think the situation is made better or worse by being exposed to her father’s side of the family?

14. By the end of the novel, Marie and Laura learn to communicate more openly, and it seems as if both are ready to walk their respective paths. What do you think becomes of them? What happens after the last page?

15. After reading Perfect Tunes, what do you think the primary message is about dreams and growing up? Do we always hold the same vision for ourselves in our minds? Does the vision change as we get older, or does a part of us always want it to come true?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Divide your book club in half and have each section discuss the book from the point of view of either Marie or Laura, seeing if the story stays the same or shifts depending on which character you’re experiencing it through the eyes of.

2. Attend a concert or listen to music as a group, and pay special attention to the lyrics in honor of Laura’s songwriting. Discuss the similarities and differences between telling stories through books and lyrics. Are there any?

3. There is quite a large canon of coming-of-age novels set in New York City, with Perfect Tunes being the latest addition. For your next book club, select one of those novels and compare and contrast with this one.
Photograph by Sylvie Rosokoff

Emily Gould is the author of the novels Perfect TunesFriendship, and the essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever. With Ruth Curry, she runs Emily Books, which publishes books by women as an imprint of Coffee House Press. She has written for The New York TimesNew YorkThe New YorkerBookforum, and many other publications. She lives in New York City with her family.

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (April 14, 2020)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501197512

“[A] poignant story about the hard and intangibly enriching work of motherhood. . . . Anyone familiar with Gould’s work will be unsurprised by her keen eye. . . . The pleasure of this book is in Gould’s astute details about everything from a hangover (which made Laura’s head feel like a “black banana”) to relationships. . . . Her writing is observant and unfussy, and she has a knack for addressing serious subjects, such as the hardships of parenting and the darkness of depression, while keeping things light.”
—Emily Bobrow, The Washington Post

“What has remained consistent throughout Gould’s career is her ability to understand, amplify, and explore the essence of a moment, in turn offering her readers the opportunity to better understand the exigencies of life, those weird after-effects that ripple out from a major catastrophe. Perfect Tunes has many of those big before-and-after moments and many of those rippling after-effects; it shows the ways in which we are all, always, having to reimagine the story of our lives. . . . Through it all, Gould’s insights into what makes up the sometimes barely perceptible beats of our lives are sensitive and spot-on.”
—Kristin Iversen, Refinery29

Perfect Tunes is a cautionary tale about a lesser-discussed form of intergenerational trauma. . . . Gould, in the end, is not suggesting that oft-told myth that motherhood makes artistic life impossible; she is showing, through Laura and Marie’s relationship, how unexpressed creativity can become as painful to carry as unpumped breast milk.”
—Lindsay Zoladz, Bookforum

Perfect Tunes is an intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation. From the obsessive spark of first love to the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, Emily Gould captures life’s ups, downs, and in-betweens with wisdom and wry humor, giving us one of the great New York coming-of-age stories.”
—Stephanie Danler

Perfect Tunes is mind-blowing. I have yet to read any text longer than like one page by Emily Gould in which she doesn’t articulate something I often thought, or felt, but never previously articulated or acknowledged. She is brilliant and fearless. Her take on mothers and daughters, and daughters’ boyfriends, and daughters’ boyfriends’ mothers, and daughters’ daughters boyfriends, is full of unspeakable insights, or at least I thought they were unspeakable, but there they are. Now I want everyone I know to read this book and talk about it with me.”  
—Elif Batuman

Perfect Tunes is a zippy and profound story of love, loss, heredity, and parenthood. I gulped it down, as will all mothers, New Yorkers, music fans, and lovers of quick-moving novels that are both funny and deep. I loved every page.”
—Emma Straub

“Sharply observant . . . Gould’s portrait of a would-be artist as a young woman offers fresh, poignant insights into the challenges faced by the city’s transplanted dreamers.”
Publishers Weekly

"Gould’s strength lies in her powers of observation, her ability to wrap words around a specific time and a place in the lives of these particular women. . . . Laura’s and Marie’s voices each stand out for their honesty and poignancy." —BookPage