As a Jewish girl raised in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s, I was shuttled around in my mom’s Buick Estate station wagon while Neil Diamond and Simon & Garfunkel crooned over the radio. Later, when she tucked me into bed, it was Barbara Streisand playing from the 8‑track stereo down the hall. And when the tape came to an end, I reached for my flashlight and hid beneath the covers with my friends Judy Blume and Sidney Sheldon.
This music and these books raised a generation; and I know that they raised me. Songs and words have an immense power to shape us.
I remember being stretched across the shaggy, green carpet watching The Jazz Singer for the hundredth time, broken by Cantor Rabinowitz’s renunciation of his son. But then I was put back together watching the last scene at Kol Nidre services and Jess finding Molly on the beach. “Hello, Again” played in the background. My very first short story was entitled “Hello, Again.” And, admittedly, there was a period when I sang — rather poorly and dramatically — a rendition of Tevye’s “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” after watching Fiddler on the Roof. My older brothers still poke fun at the memory.
If the day ended with the letter “y,” my siblings and I were typically at our synagogue attending Hebrew School. There we learned the Hebrew alphabet, chronicles of wise men and courageous women. Through these tales and melodies, I began a lifelong connection to my faith. Grandpa Max singing Dayenu at the Passover table, my best friend and I singing Adon Olam in a series of rounds. And these stories, they inspired me to write my own.
Music and books have the ability to transport. A novel drops us inside another world, while a song takes us back to long-forgotten memories. The collaboration of the two can be timeless and evocative, pushing us to dig deep and feel. It’s no wonder I based my latest novel, What You Do To Me, on a song.
Here are some of my favorite books that weave together music and books.
Windy City Blues by Renée Rosen
Leeba Groski’s passion for music lands her a job at a Chicago record company. There she realizes her dream as a songwriter while meeting and falling in love with a Black blues guitarist from Louisiana, Red Dupree. But this is 1960s Chicago, and segregation pulls them apart and Leeba’s Orthodox Jewish family renounces her. Can these lovers defy the forces that try to separate them? A beautifully crafted story that illustrates the power of music.
Mary Jane by Jessica Blau
Mary Jane is an innocent fourteen-year-old girl growing up in 1970s monotony with her nose in a book. When she lands a summer job as a nanny for an upstanding psychiatrist, her mother believes it’s the perfect opportunity. But the doctor is secretly housing a rock star (and movie star wife) in his home, with the goal to dry him out. Over the course of one summer, with music playing loudly in the background, Mary Jane faces the pull of both worlds — chaos and conventionality — as she figures out who she is and what she wants from life.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
When Rob’s girlfriend dumps him, we are taken on a journey through music-loving Rob’s history (and mind) as he suffers with rejection, lack of motivation, and questioning his every decision. Rob finds solace in his fledgling record store and quirky cast of employees while music and pop culture guides him through what truly matters. A quintessential story of love, loss, and rock and roll.
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
Ray McMillian is a Black violinist who never let prejudice keep him from his dream of performing. His prized Stradivarius violin is an extension of himself, connecting him to the world around him. On the eve before the Tchaikovsky Competition — the most prestigious competition of his career — Ray’s beloved violin is stolen. What follows is a journey of grief and self-discovery as Ray questions who he is with and without music.
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
When they first meet, Nick and Norah are broken-hearted, questioning their lives. With nothing more than a shared passion for music, they end up on a journey to find a famous band’s secret show which turns into an all-night first date. Here, music is the centerpiece of a romantic tale which is filled with adventure, heartbreak, angst, and the humor that comes with young love.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Bennie Salazar is an aging musician, and Sasha is his personal assistant. Egan weaves a brilliant narrative around these two spirited characters, introducing the colorful pasts that made them the people they are today. Beautiful and clever, this book captures the essence of both time and music and how the two have the ability to connect.
As I wrote this piece, my twenty-three-year-old son walked through the door. We have a family bond through music. Another generation steeped in stories and tradition, where Sonos speakers control our moods and feelings. At once, “Mah Tovu” played on the speakers. It’s the song he plays to let us know he’s home, to remind us how he’s rooted in his Judaism and music, but it’s mostly the way in which he lets us connect with him, without uttering a single word.
Rochelle B. Weinstein is the USA Today and Amazon bestselling author of seven women’s fiction novels, including When We Let Go, This Is Not How It Ends, and Somebody’s Daughter. A former entertainment industry executive, she splits her time between sunny South Florida and the mountains of North Carolina. As Miami’s NBC 6 in the Mix monthly book contributor, Rochelle is on the hunt for the next great read while she teaches publishing workshops at Nova Southeastern University. She loves hiking, beach walks, her two dogs, and finding the world’s best nachos. She is currently working on her eighth novel. Please visit her at www.rochelleweinstein.com.