The bridge at Sagamore was closed when we got there that summer of 1956. We had to cross the canal at Buzzards Bay over the only other roadway that tethered Cape Cod to the mainland.
Thus twelve-year-old Lily Grainger, while safe from ‘communists and the Pope,’ finds her family suddenly adrift. That was the summer the Andrea Doria sank, pilot whales stranded, and Lily’s father built a house he couldn't afford. Target practice on a nearby decommissioned Liberty Ship echoed not only the rancor in her parents' marriage, a rancor stoked by Lily’s competitive uncle, but also Lily’s troubles with her sister, her cousins, and especially with her mother. In her increasingly desperate efforts to salvage her parents' marriage, Lily discovers betrayals beyond her understanding as well as the small ways in which people try to rescue each other. She draws on her music lessons and her love of Cape Cod—from Sagamore and Monomoy to Nauset Spit and the Wellfleet Dunes, seeking safe passage from the limited world of her salt marsh to the larger, open ocean.
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They say all first novels are part memoir, and indeed I did grow up in Belleville, New Jersey, my family did spend our summers on Cape Cod, and I had a marvelous cello teacher who very much resembled Alphius Metcalf. It took me a long time to write WATER MUSIC; in some ways, my whole life.
Growing up with parents who were both musicians, I set out, with a little goading from my father, to be the best cellist I could be. In fact, I was lucky to have had a number of remarkable teachers: Orlando Cole, revered cellist and pedagogue, who saw enough early promise in me to accept me to his class at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where I received my Bachelor of Music degree. It was an incredible break for an unsophisticated girl from New Jersey. I remember him and his generous sense of decency and gentlemanly kindness with great affection and gratitude.
My luck continued when I spent two years studying in Germany in the Master Class of the renowned Italian cellist, Antonio Janigro. Since then I’ve spent my musical career with the Minnesota Orchestra, where I met and married the handsome fourth horn player. And where my formidable colleagues, incredibly, only get better and better and better.
I’ve spent my summers with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, renewing ties with musician friends from around the world (and catching up on industry gossip). There, over the years, I also learned the pleasures of backpacking. I came to fancy myself a mycologist, but in truth I’ve become so rusty that I now limit myself to store-bought and the occasional Morel foraged on a really good day.
The first book I truly fell in love with was Blue Willow by Doris Gates. I must have been in grammar school. I believe that the beloved china plate in that book finds its echo in WATER MUSIC. A college boyfriend got me reading The Lord of the Rings, which I uncharacteristically found bewitching, and T.S. Eliot, which I tried with only marginal success to memorize. Around that time I discovered The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. And Mahler’s Tenth. Yes. Eclectic.
My own writing life snuck up on me. It first manifested as a journal after my daughter was born. She tolerated my reading to her for a charitably long time, but she put her foot down when I suggested Watership Down, which by then she was perfectly capable of reading herself. Two of my favorites from her early days: Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger and A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams.
Books I’ve loved as an adult…way too many to name. But The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy made a huge impression on me. And A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I used to go on kicks: John Gardner, Wallace Stegner, Steinbeck, the ancient Greece novels by Mary Renault. Now the stack grows higher and higher.
Pet peeve: incorrect direct object pronouns. In fact my friends would call me a grammar nerd, but I still get lay and lie wrong.
Growing up, I was a cat person. But I’ve learned to love dogs—even the naughty ones, maybe especially the naughty ones.
All in all, I look for the rhythms and sounds of music echoed in language and aspire to transpose some of that into my writing.
Brahms, Ravel, Bach. Even a little Gersh- win. Racy music. And Beethoven. Always Beethoven. “I’ve almost got the exposition,” she would say, working out a difficult passage. On the prowl for wrong notes or imprecise rhythms. But once she had the nuts and bolts in place, then she went after the music. She sought out a more expressive tempo, a longer phrase, a different articulation which might better reveal what it was Beethoven meant to say. To see if he would say it to her.
Lily and her family are getting ready to celebrate her birthday on their yearly visit to their property near the water in Cape Cod. This year, they would stop living in tents and finally build their house. It would be the house where they would spend their summer vacations, a place they could make their own. It would also be the house that nearly tore the family apart.
Water Music by Marcia Peck tells the story of Lily, the youngest family member, as she battles to hold her family together through the trials and tribulations of life.
Lily's family dynamics play a significant role in this novel. Her older sister and cousin frequently excluded Lily, as they prefer each other's company. Lily is desperate to have friends, to have people like her, and yet, she finds herself facing loneliness wherever she turns.
Lily’s Uncle George has the land across the water from them, so when they go on vacation, they all do so together. It took just a small boat trip, or a short car ride, to travel between the two pieces of land, but as close as they were physically, they certainly were not so close in their relationships. George had always been the stronger brother, the one to stand up and shine, and he clearly enjoyed the attention. So, when his brother, Weston, finally managed to raise the funds to build his family their house, George must put his opinion on the table - he always tries to find something wrong with Weston’s plans. There is significant tension throughout this book between many different characters and George, and this tension builds until it spills out onto other characters. George is the reason for many arguments between Lily’s parents, and his arrogance has given him a superiority complex, making him desperate to be right about everything. His actions, and disregard for other people’s wellbeing and opinions, make him a rather unlikable character.
In a similar manner, Lily’s mother is also rather unlikable. She loathes George, as well as his treatment of both his brother and his wife. She can’t bear to see Weston sit by, refusing to say anything to George about his behaviour. She is often at odds with Weston, over many issues, although mainly revolving around George and the vast amounts of money being spent on the house. While she has valid reasons for being upset with Weston, she takes a lot of her frustrations out on Lily, which can be heartbreaking at times. All Lily wants is a mother who cares enough to make sure she is okay, to hold her when she is upset, and to protect her when she is scared. Yet, she has none of those things, only a mother who is often close to boiling over, and nothing Lily does seems to do anything to make her mother like her more.
And he asked me about the slow introduction. Was I pacing my ritard? Was I establishing enough contrast in the fast section? Extra bite with the bow might help. How about the sixteenths? Were they more even with our new fingering? I must be sure I was listening to the piano. Every note. That was my lifeline, he insisted.
For Lily’s mother, Lydia, music was everything. To sit at the piano and let the music flow was the essence of life. To live among the notes was to experience the best version of life that you could. Her gift for music was clearly passed down to Lily, who shows a natural affinity for the cello, although the way they approach music differs vastly. Lydia finds pure happiness only when she sits at the piano, while Lily lacks the same enthusiasm for playing the cello. She is required to practice for a specific duration each day and must allocate a significant portion of her time to perfecting certain musical pieces. She feels a little resentful that she must practice while her sister gets to run around, explore, and be free. This, however, changed when she meets Mr Metcalf. Mr Metcalf presents her with an innovative way of playing. He shows her that music is not about rigidity, nor about sticking to the rules and producing pitch-perfect sounds. Music is about feeling, about understanding and appreciating the magic created when the notes hit the air and float around, forming together into chords, and arpeggios, reaching a crescendo and revealing the truth – music is meant to come from the soul, not from a piece of paper. Lily’s journey with developing her love for music was just as magical as the pieces she is learning to play. At times, you can almost hear the melodies reverberating around the room, and her devotion, not only to the music she is playing but to her parents, who are telling her to play, is commendable.
Carolyn sideswiped the Jersey shore on a Saturday morning, pounding the boardwalk towns but doing little damage inland. All day my father followed reports on the car radio. Everyone hoped the storm would miss the Cape and blow itself out to sea. But just when we began to think we could relax, Carolyn veered.
The novel progresses through gentle breezes, gradually escalating to a destructive storm that endangers Lily's families legacy. At the beginning of every chapter, there is a concise explanation of how various wind speeds can influence the world, coming together to create an intensifying storm. With Hurricane Carolyn blowing in, Lily’s world crashes around her in more ways than one. Arguments and disagreements overflow, and as the storm rages, so does her family. The novel foreshadows the storm from the beginning, using chapter headings to create a sense of anticipation and exploring how family conflicts escalate. With nature mirroring the dysfunction of Lily’s family, it is difficult to miss the tension and agitation and start to feel apprehensive about what is truly to come.
A cacophony of emotion, tension, and dread, all told through the eyes of a young girl who doesn’t fully understand the world yet, Water Music by Marcia Peck is a novel of dysfunction, but also one of symphony, of things falling into place and music weaving together a crack until it becomes whole again. This is an inspirational story and one that is not easily forgotten.
“Water Music: A Cape Cod Story” by Marcia Peck receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company
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