The Brooklyn Book Festival was a couple of months ago. I’ve meant to go every year since I moved to New York, but Brooklyn is far away and things come up and blaahhhh. Anyway, this year I finally did! And, as one does at such things, I bought a lot of books. The first one I tackled was Meet the Annas: A Musical Novel by Robert Dunn.
The book basically plays what-if with a fictional 1960s girl group, the Annas. It’s told from the POV of Dink Stephenson, one of their song writers, looking back at what happened years later. He was in love with the band’s front woman, Anna Dubower, and eventually proposed to her as the girl group era passed and they were desperately trying to manufacture a hit to bring them back. Anna didn’t give him an answer, and weeks later, was mysteriously dead. Now there’s a rights dispute over that last song, Dink has to go to court over it, and running into people from that old life stirs up old memories. At last, he’s determined to figure out what happened to Anna.
I was pretty ambivalent when I first finished this book. In the months since (I am waaaay behind on my reviews) the ending has festered, and now I find it enraging. I’m going to cut here because the book is sort of a mystery. I found it super obvious, but your mileage may vary.
OMG SPOILER: Anna was in a bad relationship and eventually raped. That’s why she becomes upset, sullen, withdrawn. It works fine, but it was a really big No Duh, because that’s a pretty common Tragic Backstory. Further complicating the matter (of the book, not the cliché particularly), it was the late 60s, Anna got pregnant, and wanted to keep the baby — but was coerced into a back alley abortion, and died of complications. Keep that in mind; it’s going to be important when I rant later.
So there’s the mystery. It was presented reasonably well. The book picked up as it went along. I never quite came to like the narrator, nor do I remember much about him as a character — I had to look up his name to write this review. He was pretty much a Nice Guy ™, sure he was truly the only one who could really understand and love Anna (an international celebrity, desired by everyone, who’d had affairs with John Lennon and Mick Jagger). So he waited pretty passively for her for years, eventually became close to her when she was emotionally shattered due to her fame fading away and the bad relationship she was coping with (which he didn’t even know about). I’ll give the book that he was nice to her because he cared about her, not because he wanted to get in her miniskirt, but he sure did jump at the chance when it arose. (And did I mention that he’d already dated and broken up with her sister at that point? Or that he didn’t appear to have visited his disabled sister for several decades between Anna’s death and the book’s beginning — so well into his 60s, he had no idea his sister was a lesbian, even though she’d been living with a “female companion” for an indeterminate amount of time.) So I don’t love Dink for the most part, and at the end, I found him detestable and it ruined the book for me. More on that in a bit.
The other characters are… fine, I guess. I genuinely liked Princess, his talented and assertive co-writer on all of the Annas songs. I liked his sister, though she was only in the book briefly. Anna’s sister was fine. Anna herself was almost totally a cipher, and more object than character. The other characters were pretty bland; I only remember the ones who played into the plot in major ways, really. The book also had a bit of ridiculous to it, like the missing diary and the record that was the key piece of evidence needed for the trial. Turned out — omg spoiler again! — that Dink’s sister had them. Because she and Anna developed a very close friendship, largely off screen, and Anna sent them to her and then asked her specifically that she only ever tell Dink that they exist if he specifically asks for them. Why? Uh… because if he knew about them earlier, the book would have been over a lot faster, I think.
Mostly, though, what entertains me about the book is that it’s pretty clearly Dunn writing alternate universe fanfiction. It took me approximately three minutes of Googling to work out that the Annas are loosely based on real-life girl group the Ronettes. Ronettes lead singer Ronnie was, in real life, married to Phil Spector; in the book, Anna’s terrible relationship (OMG SPOILER) is with her producer, Punky Solomon — who’s known mostly for a technique where he’d bring in orchestral instruments and layer them on top of the song, creating a fuller, more classical sound for his pop music. Like, I don’t know, a wall of sound or something. I read the whole thing with mild amusement; I had a hard time taking it seriously because once John Lennon actually appeared on page and it became clear it was someone’s AU fanfic, I had a hard time remembering it was a Serious Book, and I think it wanted to be serious.
All of that is fine. The book would have been a decent, 3-star affair. Except for the end. Ohhhhhh, the end.
What happens is this: Anna was raped (or nearly raped) by a random thug who’d been fascinated by her for years — and Punky showed up to rescue her. It’s not clear what happened then; even in the narrative (this is from memory, not checking the pages, since the book is buried somewhere in a pile in my room) Dink makes it clear that either Punky raped her directly at that point, or he raped her by emotionally coercing her into sleeping. (This is after she’d finally broken up with him.) She got pregnant, and it was Punky who coerced her into having an abortion. An abortion that killed her. Then, at the end of the book, Punky himself is shot and killed by the thug he’d rescued Anna from.
So then at the end… Dink talks with Princess about how she heard rumors Punky had been making music before he died, the first time he’d done so since the 60s. They both muse over how amazing that would be. Punky was a musical genius, the best ever, and gosh, everyone desperately wishes he’d made more music. Then they go to his funeral and Dink talks to Punky’s father about how amazing and wonderful and genius Punky was. The book ends with him thinking about what a shame it is that Punky died before he could finish whatever he was working on. Because the loss of a genius is such a tragic, tragic thing. Punky died. Tragedy!
WHAT THE FUCK.
Let me say it again: Punky raped Anna. He forced her to have an abortion. She died from it. And as another reminder, this is Anna who Dink was supposed to be desperately in love with. But I guess none of that thing where he raped, coerced, and inadvertently killed her mattered, because he was suuuuuch a genius!!
I know that kind of shit happens in real life, with people falling all over themselves to forgive violent crimes by men deemed geniuses. But I don’t need that shit in my books. If I was supposed to be with Dink, mourning the genius that was Punky Solomon… well, sorry, no, because I don’t mourn the tragic loss of genius when the genius was a rapist and murderer. I just don’t! I value people’s bodily autonomy and human rights more than that! And I was, presumably, supposed to like Dink. I went from unengaged to totally enraged by him, so. No.
You know, the more I think about this, the more stars I want to take off my review. If the last chapter or so hadn’t existed? Or heck, even if Dink had actually cared about all of the serious shit Punky did? The book would have been three stars. As it is? One. Because Goodreads won’t let me rate it less than that. It was fine, and nothing about “fine” is good enough to overcome the hateful ending.
I like the idea of what Robert Dunn is doing with “musical fiction,” though I’m not sure I really buy it as a genre. But considering that his upcoming book, Look At Flower, has copy on the website that says it’s about a young girl who, presumably at the end, “meets her ecstatic fate,” I think I’ll pass on the rest of his titles.