Book Review: A Song to Take the World Apart, Zan Romanoff (2016)

September 12th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A book about first loves, female power, and consent (spoiler alert: there is none in love spells).

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

No one remembers when it was that our ancestors first found their way out of the sea. It seems now that all human life might have begun there, and that makes sense to me: that the womb of the world is water and salt. But I am speaking more specifically about a kind of ancestor that not everyone on this earth shares. And of course that makes sense to me too. How could a world so vast produce only one kind of human being?

Lorelei didn’t know whether she liked the boy or the guitar more.

— 3.5 stars —

Lorelei Felson is a second-generation German immigrant – although, with her long, blonde hair, wispy figure, and perfect English, she’s really just another pretty face in LA. Her family – mother Petra, father Henry, and Oma Silke – came to the United States eighteen years ago, when Petra was just seventeen and already pregnant with the twins, Lorelei’s older brothers Nik and Jens. Lorelei always assumed that Petra fled from shame – of being an unwed teenage mother in a small coastal town – yet details are difficult to come by in their stern, quiet household. The true circumstances of their exile are much weirder and more mythical than Lorelei could ever imagine – and they’re all bound up in her grandmother’s longstanding prohibition on singing.

Despite the oddness of it, Lorelei never questioned Oma’s decree; it was just another rule she was raised to follow, like eat your broccoli or be home by curfew. And so Lorelei’s voice remained silent – or at least shackled – until two fateful events converged to change her world forever: Lorelei fell hard for Chris Paulson, a charming senior and the lead singer for The Trouble; and Oma passed away after suffering a massive stroke. Suddenly Lorelei’s soul is filled with a volatile mix of raw, aching grief and crazy, careless first love that all but demands a musical release.

Lorelei begins to experiment with her voice and its seemingly impossible ability to mesmerize, manipulate, and captivate others. With her voice, Lorelei can cast love spells, tell others what to think and feel, and leave them hungry (always hungry) for more. Lorelei is a siren, and almost as soon as she grasps the sheer awesomeness of her power, she must find a way to rein it in, and fix the many broken people she’s unwittingly left in her wake.

A Song to Take the World Apart is an unusual little book. (At 320 pages, it isn’t exactly tiny; but it felt a little shorter than it needed to be.) A few days out, and I’m still not quite sure what to think of it. It’s got the bones of a pretty epic story, but it falls just short of its potential. I wouldn’t call it underwhelming, exactly … understated, perhaps? Not quite as monumental and catastrophic and gut-wrenching as I expected, particularly given the title.

Much of Romanoff’s writing, especially those passages related to music, are enchanting. She captures the essence of music in a way that’s both compelling and lovely; even without Lorelei’s magical ancestry, her raw, naked urge to make music is bewitching. I could all but feel the music swelling up out of my own throat. (But trust me when I say that absolutely no one wants to hear that.) Plus you’ve got to appreciate a book that quotes the Foo Fighters in its epigraph.

I loved the relationship between Lorelei and her best friend, Zoe: easy and comfortable and forgiving. In the few scenes that she appeared in, Zoe’s older sister Carina really piqued my interest; I wish we’d seen more interactions between her and Zoe, though I understand why this didn’t happen. (She was really there to help guide Lorelei on her path.) There’s a wonderful “under the gaydar” subplot with Nik and Jackson that explores the decision to come out (or not) in high school with compassion and nuance.

I also liked watching Lorelei interact with her older brothers (and the twins, with each other); I kind of wish they’d been a little more involved in the family’s mythology. It seemed that Lorelei and Lorelei alone wondered at and worried over the Felson family’s troubled history; given that the twins’ conception was the impetus for their immigration, you’d think that Nik and Jens would have been a little more curious too.

On the other end of the spectrum, I never felt like I got a good handle on Petra and Henry – and especially their relationship with one another. A Song to Take the World Apart feels rife with unexplored avenues and not-quite-seamless threads, particularly in relation to the adults: Petra, Henry, Silke, and Hannah. Take, for example, this passage:

Is this mania? Lorelei wonders. Is this her mother’s way of losing her mind? But it doesn’t seem like that, not exactly. Petra has always been distant and quiet, like bare, dry earth. Now she’s swelling up and filling out, like she was just waiting for Oma to wither and fade before she could blossom.

To me, this hints at a possible mythological detail: maybe, in this world, the matriarch wields the greatest power, and when she dies the mantle is passed down to her oldest daughter. Or the next oldest siren in her line. Perhaps Petra just feels freer and lighter now that she’s no longer living in the shadow of her overbearing mother. (Their relationship was complicated, to say the least.) Petra might even be entertaining thoughts of singing again. But we never find out, as Romanoff detours from this path, never to return.

If Lorelei’s gift of song can be read as a metaphor for female sexuality, or feminine power more generally, I’m still not entirely sure what A Song to Take the World Apart had to say on the matter. On the one hand, Lorelei is angry and frustrated to be barred from singing, especially when abstention comes at great personal cost: “She doesn’t want to be like those communities of women wherever her family comes from, keeping their power private the way women always do.” And yet, upon seeing what her power can do, she frets over the men who will “shipwreck” against her, as if her body is a treacherous shore, lined with sharp, cutting rocks and swift currents. A hard, unyielding natural landscape instead of an impressionable young woman. Of course, these conflicting perspectives could very well be a window into what Lorelei herself is feeling, as opposed to a statement on womanhood in general.

A Song to Take the World Apart contains the seed of a beautiful story, but it doesn’t quite bloom; not the way I expected it to, anyway. Still, it’s great to find a book that doesn’t romanticize “love spells,” which is essentially a whimsical way of describing rape.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Lorelei and her brothers Nik and Jens are second-generation German immigrants. Their parents and grandmother fled from Germany when Petra was seventeen – and pregnant with the twins.

Her Oma Silke – who pretty much raised her – dies not far into the story, of a massive stroke. Though she’s in a coma, her daughter Petra decides to take her off life support.

Lorelei’s best friend Zoe Soroush is described as having “tawny” “olive” skin. She and her sister Carina take Farsi lessons on Sunday, suggesting that they are Middle Eastern (Iranian or Afghani) descent.

Chris’s father died about a year ago; since that time, his mother has been acting jealous and possessive of him. I guess you could say that they have a fairly unhealthy co-dependent relationship.

Nik’s been having an on-again/off-again relationship with one of Chris’s band mates, Jackson. Jackson wanted to come out to the school, but Nik preferred to keep their relationship secret. Jackson went on to date a girl named Angela, but when the two bumped into each other at The Trouble’s Halloween show, they started fooling around again. Jackson loves Angela and might best be described as bi, while Nik is reluctant to label himself.

Oma’s husband died some twenty years ago, when Petra was just a teenager.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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