Spoilers for both this book and All Our Pretty Songs
Having by now read McCarry’s entire Metamorphoses trilogy, I can say that this one is easily the best. Told in alternating third-person from the perspectives of Cass and Maia, the mothers of the friends in All Our Pretty Songs and at this point best friends themselves, it also alternates between “Then”– before they run away together on a trip down the West Coast– and “Now”–as the trip continues and finally as they return. McCarry manages the pacing perfectly with these four different perspectives, which impressed me.
One thing that became obvious reading this book that wasn’t in the first book is that Maia’s daughter Aurora is half-white, half-Asian, like me. I had been assuming, due to my own prejudices and stereotypes, that based on her background and behavior, she was part-black or at least Hispanic, definitely not someone like me. But I’m really glad she turned out to be what she was– it challenged my own preconceptions and made me more aware of them. Plus, I like that the author didn’t let the usual assumptions about race dictate Aurora’s character.
But that’s about the other book. This one was really beautifully written, the third-person pov (which I normally like less than first) pulling away from the sometimes overwritten style of the first book, in favor of something more precise and in my opinion lovelier. I had some issues with Dirty Wings, mainly the use of certain cliches. The failed interracial, international adoption of Maia felt like a cliche to me, because I could never get a sense of her adoptive mother as a real person rather than an antagonist. I also didn’t believe that Maia played the piano better than ever after weeks of not practicing, however much else she learned on the road. It felt like a trite way to show her growth.
The Greek myth retold in this episode is that of Persephone, and at one point Cass makes a shocking betrayal– I mean truly shocking, in a book about friendship. It’s not when she sleeps with Maia’s new husband, the soon-to-be rock star Jason, even though that explained some things about the previous book– the narrator and Aurora are actually, unbeknownst to them, sisters. It’s when she gets Jason to eat a pomegranate, and then Maia eats it too, and she doesn’t stop her. She does join in herself, at least.
But this alone doesn’t damn Maia and Jason. They too have free will, and it’s a theme in this trilogy that you can only be destroyed by your own (uninformed, misunderstood, regretted too late) consent. All the characters in this book make terrible choices, and yet it’s not a depressing book, because of the love Maia and Cass have for each other. At first it’s a deep friendship, one that pulls sheltered Maia into the world of street kid Cass but brings her joy she never knew. Later it becomes clear that Cass’s feelings for Maia are romantic, and that Maia reciprocates, though she remains faithful to the flawed man she impulsively married on the road trip.
Regardless, their love for each other, in all its forms, is heartwarming. It’s a different kind of friendship from the sisterly love of Aurora and All Our Pretty Song‘s narrator, both because it edges into romance and because Maia and Cass didn’t grow up together but found each other as teens. It pulled me in more.
Both for its greater emotional impact on me and for the technical skill in its construction, its pov shifts and timeline shifts and careful mix of joy and sadness, I think this is the best book in the series, and enjoyed it greatly.
Aurora and the nameless narrator are best friends who love each other wholly and completely. They’re of different races (one mixed, one white) and classes (one rich, one poor) but they’re like sisters. The narrator would do anything for Aurora, whose father, a famous rocker, died when she was young and whose mother is an addict.
Things go wrong when, attracted by the narrator’s boyfriend’s musical talent and Aurora’s beauty, the god of the underworld starts to take an interest. Will the narrator be able to save Aurora, or will they suffer the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice?
I had a few complaints about the novel. One was the occasionally overwrought prose, endless streams of metaphor describing music and kisses, reaching for poetic and failing through sheer quantity. Another was that it took a while for the urban fantasy/Greek mythology plot to get underway. But once it does, oh boy is it good.
I highly recommend this book, mainly for the narrator’s journey to the underworld, which is pitch-perfect. It’s also got great depictions of art and of friendship, friendship being the heart of the story. The truth is, sometimes the person you love most has something that matters to them more than you do, and you have to let them go. At the same time, the author offers a warning against letting go unnecessarily in the depiction of the mothers’ friendship, which has disintegrated but is revived. So there’s a nice level of complexity.
This is a sad book, fair warning. But it’s lovely, too. Here’s one of the less overwrought, more beautiful quotes:
“That is the story of you, Aurora: You are always waiting until tomorrow to be sad. You’re a fairy princess beaming at me, remaking the world in your image. Wiping away everything that hurts. But someday everything that hurts will come back and kill you. Your face, your wide dark eyes, your white hair, the skin I know as well as I know my own. “Okay,” I say. “For you, tonight, I will be happy.””
This is a the first of a trilogy, but the other books feature different protagonists. I’ve already bought book two, Dirty Wings, and will definitely be reading it.