The big line on Laura Huntt Foti’s debut novel, The Cusp of Everything is that it is the first book to come with its own soundtrack. The idea is for Kindle Fire, iPad, and other online device readers to simultaneously stream the music from www.cuspofeverything.com while they read the book. It is an intriguing proposition, as music infuses the novel. In fact, to be honest, the references are almost overwhelming. The author says that she got the idea while reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. I understand completely what she is saying, I too found myself putting on various Stones albums while reading his remembrances.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not read the book as Foti envisioned though. I simply read it as a novel. The book takes place during the year between July, 1975, and July, 1976. Many (but not all) of the songs cited were big radio hits. So, sorry — but since I was close to the age of the protagonist at the time, I was intimately familiar with most of the songs anyway. For example, the very first one mentioned is “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille. I wonder if there a person who was alive in the mid-seventies who does not have that particularly annoying ditty tattooed on their brain?
Evidently Laura Huntt Foti has worked in and around music for most of her professional career, so her choices are pretty hip, where appropriate. It’s kind of like what Steven Van Zandt had to say about the music of The Sopranos. Considering that Tony and Carmela were in high school in the late seventies, early eighties, their classic-rock has to reflect that. Unfortunately, this meant stuff like REO Speedwagon and Journey. Sopranos guru David Chase said that the show had to be true to what (they) would have listened to, and Van Zandt’s response was basically, “Yes, but that means a lot of crappy songs.” As the “Love Will Keep Us Together” citation shows, it was definitely a similar situation in the mid-seventies as well.
So let’s table the music portion of the novel for now, and discuss the story itself. The Cusp of Everything is the perfect title for a book which takes place in the mid-seventies. For those of us coming of age at that time, we really had no idea of the huge societal changes ahead of us. The use of the word “everything” is important though, because the changes ahead are very, very personal as well.
I had kind of a strange feeling while reading this book. It was as if I were reading an interesting diary, from someone who had a lot to say, but never expected anyone else to read it. In a way, the feeling I had was almost “naughty,” as if I were eavesdropping on an inner conversation I should not be hearing. This is certainly to the author’s credit, as she quite obviously delved deeply into her own emotions to express the inner life of Karen Walsh.
When we meet Karen in July, 1975, she has just graduated high school, and is headed toward her first year of college. Talk about a “cusp” period in life, I remember it well. Her parents are divorced, and while civil towards each other, the situation is not great. Like most 18-year olds, her hormones are getting the better of her, and she is infatuated with a couple of men over the course of the story. To put it delicately, none of these situations work out too well, as is also the case with most 18-year old romances.
While I do not really wish to give away too much of the story here, I would describe it more as a “slice-of-life” tale than anything else. Karen lives on the “bad side” of wealthy Westchester County, outside of New York City. She longs to move to the City, and will the following year, to attend NYU. For now, however, she is enrolled at SUNY, living at home, and is not exactly thrilled about any of it.
I grew up in the boonies outside of Seattle, so there is one aspect of The Cusp of Everything that I cannot relate to, and it is an important one. Karen interacts with a number of “out” gay men over the course of the story. In the Northwest, things were still much more closeted than they were in the Northeast. Or so I am guessing. Of course, I really cannot relate to being an 18-year old female in 1975 either, so there you go.
In any event, what I, and any other reader can relate to is the heartbreaking emotional turbulence of life at that age. While the world has changed dramatically in the past 35+ years, the teen-angst that Karen goes through probably never will.
We wind up at a Bicentennial celebration outside the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1976. The final song cited is (appropriately enough), “America Tune” by Paul Simon. Over the course of 232-pages, we have gotten to know Karen Walsh so well, it is unavoidably depressing to say goodbye to her. I want to know what follows, and hopefully Laura Huntt Foti’s sequel will arrive soon enough.
While I did not read the book online, with the soundtrack streaming, I did get prompted to put on some of the great songs that she mentions. For anyone reading the old-fashioned way as I did, any of those Rhino Best of the 70s collections will do in a pinch, as well as The Best of The Ojay’s. She cites over 200 songs throughout the text, and not all of them are radio hits. Notable “oddities” include the Close To The Edge album by Yes, and “I Think of You” from Renaissance. For those Kindle-impaired like me, the author has helpfully included “The Soundtrack,” which lists every song, artist, and film mentioned (by chapter) in the text.
I applaud the forward-looking setup of The Cusp of Everything, but in the end, it really is the story that counts. The inner-life of Karen Walsh is a fascinating one, as it reflects a very self-aware, albeit conflicted young woman. There is much to applaud in this first effort, and I enjoyed the book immensely.