I first listened to Nickolas Butler’s debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs when I received an advance listening copy in early January. Two months later, I picked up an advance copy of Rufi Thorpe’s debut The Girls from Corona del Mar at PLA. I was struck by the similar themes between the two books and re-read Shotgun Lovesongs to compare the two. Though starkly different styles and characters, both books explore the same central theme: what happens to our childhood friendships as we grow into adults? I enjoyed both books tremendously, and each has its own merits separate from the other, but my experience of both was enriched by the other, and they will always live in my mind as a sort of unexpected, long-distance friendship between people who have never met.
Told from the alternating viewpoints of five childhood friends (four boys and the girl one of them marries), now in their 30s, Shotgun Lovesongs richly depicts what it’s like to return to one’s childhood home and pick up childhood friendships while trying to maintain adult pressures and responsibilities. From debt and health problems, marriage and parenthood, career successes and struggles, Butler successfully explores the quiet jealousies and “grass is always greener” thoughts that are so much a marker of this stage of life, without making his characters whine about how much easier everyone else has it. Where in childhood lines were drawn between the smart kids and the pretty kids, the athletic kids and the funny kids, lines are no less drawn in our 30s, except now the divisions seem more personal: married versus single; children versus childfree; people who stayed close to home versus those who got out of Dodge; rich versus poor. As our life choices veer farther away from our friends’ choices and we hold less of our daily life in common, forgiveness for betrayal becomes more complicated. I can say only that in the town of Little Wing, Wisconsin, sometimes forgiveness comes in the shape of a pickled egg.
The Girls from Corona del Mar has a smaller cast, but is arguably more complicated and unquestionably more heartbreaking. We watch as Lorrie Ann and Mia, best friends in a way that only adolescent girls can be, each make separate choices—beginning with the woman’s quintessential right to choose—that set them on paths that become ever more divergent. As Mia, our narrator, broadens her world and begins to achieve some measure of success, she watches helplessly as her friend—through poor choices and bad luck—spirals downward into a life so dramatically different from her own it seems impossible that they both started from the same California beach town. Thorpe unflinchingly shows her characters wrestling with questions that make all of us squirm, but she does so in a way that is so full of love and compassion for her characters that you cannot merely dismiss them or their actions just because you don’t necessarily like them.
I cannot stress this enough: these are two very different books. With his vivid rendering of America’s heartland, Butler is unapologetically nostalgic and sentimental. He writes, “Melancholy is such a dramatic sounding word, but sometimes it’s the right one. When you’re feeling both a little happy and a little sad; it’s the feeling most people experience at a high school graduation I suppose, or watching their child board a school bus for the first time.” His writing is melancholic, and gentle, and—though even I hardly know what I mean when I say this—distinctly Midwestern. Where Thorpe gives us precise, vivid imagery, Butler gives us richly detailed settings. During and after reading Shotgun Lovesongs, I kept thinking fondly of Midwestern farms, wholesome Americana, and my own childhood in small town America. During and after reading The Girls from Corona del Mar, I couldn’t stop this image, from early in the book, from playing on repeat in my head, like a song you can’t shake: “I brought the hammer down, too hard and too wildly, so that my baby toe did not just break, but became a pulp, its tender bulb split and flattened like a squashed grape, the concrete of the patio beneath it cracked and slick with blood.” And perhaps that’s the core of the difference between these two books: Butler tugged at my heartstrings and Thorpe squeezed my viscera, but both made me ache: for childhood, for choices made and unmade, for the past and the future, and for old friends.
Thorpe asks, “Can anyone know anyone? Do you know me?” and Butler seems to answer back, “You think you know someone, but you can never really know someone.” The similar themes between the two are undeniable and it would make a fascinating book club to discuss the wildly different approaches to the shared themes. Perhaps you’ll want to read The Girls from Corona del Mar first and follow it up with Shotgun Lovesongs for a little lighter mood. Or maybe your book club can discuss them both together and settle once and for all the difference between male and female friendships. I developed an embarrassingly adolescent crush on narrator Scott Shepherd as I listened to him voice Lee, the small town boy turned rock star, of Shotgun Lovesongs, so maybe you’ll want to listen to Butler’s book first to get a little weak in the knees, and then switch to The Girls from Corona del Mar for some sucker punch heartbreak. Whether you read them together or individually, I guarantee that at the end you’ll want to call your best friend for a long chat.
Enjoy the audio clips below and join us next week for interviews with both Nickolas Butler and Rufi Thorpe, in which they each answer questions related to the overlapping themes of both books, as well as questions specific to their own titles.
Shotgun Lovesongs, available from Macmillan Audio 3/4/2014
The Girls from Corona del Mar, available from Random House Audio 7/8/2014