For Retta Lee Jones, the town of Starling, Tennessee has never been big enough to house her dreams. Fresh from high school graduation and sweating over a stove at a low-end diner job, Retta’s been talking about leaving town and heading to Nashville, guitar in hand, for as long as she can remember. But when push comes to shove, she isn’t sure she’s brave enough to leave Starling, her pucker-faced mama and quiet, hard-working daddy behind.
But at the prodding of her best friend Brenda, Retta is able to secure transporation (her elderly aunt’s old car) and a means to communicate (a cell phone shoved in her hand by Brenda). With little more than $500 in hand, Retta heads to Nashville to sing.
She’s grown up reading about all the pros, of course. Retta knows she can’t just waltz down to Music Row, busk for a while and suddenly get a contract. But she’s willing to do what she has to — including sleeping in her car — to try and make a name for herself . . . until fate might have other plans.
Suzanne Supplee’s Somebody Everybody Listens To is 18-year-old Retta’s story of digging deep and finding the courage to do the scary thing — the unsafe thing — even when everything in the world seems to be telling you not to attempt it.
The novel opens with a quote from country superstar Dolly Parton: “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.” And bravery is a definite requirement of this adventure. A series of mishaps immediately make her life in Nashville harder, and the idea of a girl traveling to a city alone with so little cash and no real plan made my stomach churn. I’m a type-A obsessive worrier, see, and a planner. And Retta lacked a plan. How does one just hop into an old car, hit the open road and leave her family and friends behind her? The girl didn’t even have a place to sleep. And if it hadn’t been for Ricky Dean, a kind tow truck driver and mechanic, she’d have been unemployed, broke, beat-up and hopeless.
Basically, I spent the entire novel waiting for something terrible to happen to her. It seemed hopelessly naive that someone would just cruise into Nashville with nothing but their dreams and an old guitar to keep them going, but I guess people . . . do. It’s a world with which I’m not familiar, I’ll say that, but if Supplee’s writing about it, I’m going to assume young people head to Tennessee fueled only by ambition all the time.
I read (and adored) Supplee’s Artichoke’s Heart last year. Rosie, the narrator, was such a charming, real and relatable character — someone I loved and rooted for from day one. Unfortunately with her latest novel, I didn’t ever feel an emotional connection to Retta or feel invested in what happened to her. Part of me was actually angry, as I mentioned, that she’d be so cavalier and wanton, drifting where the wind — and her music — took her.
But maybe I’m just a dream destroyer.
Overall, a decent novel about ambition and never giving up, even when the odds are (more than) stacked against you. I wish I’d been more in tune with Retta, though I did enjoy reading about the “behind the scenes” aspects of the music industry — and a subplot involving her parents and the dreams they sacrificed added a little dimension to the story. But if you’re new to Supplee? Pick up Artichoke’s Heart first, one of my favorite reads of 2009.
3 out of 5!