By Katy Goodwin-Bates
On the surface, Riley Redgate’s second novel is a delightfully sweet comedy about a capella. Like all people of sound mind, I have a sizeable obsession with the Pitch Perfect movies, and Noteworthy shares those films’ irreverent but affectionate attitude towards their subject matter. Something else they have in common is giving me an insatiable urge to start an a capella group. Any takers?
Monday morning was the worst possible time to have an existential crisis, I decided on a Monday morning, while having an existential crisis.
Noteworthy takes its lead from Shakespeare’s comedies (you know the bard loved a capella, right?), with protagonist Jordan forced to create and sustain an entirely different identity when she successfully auditions for an all-male a capella group as her last chance to make an impact at her performing arts school. Some of the ensuing plot dilemmas are predictable, but they’re never hackneyed, and Redgate gleans both humor and pathos from Jordan’s self-imposed identity crisis. There’s plenty about the story that’s relatable even to anyone who hasn’t ever disguised themselves as a different gender for an extended period of time: Jordan is something of a social misfit, having invested all her time in a now-defunct relationship; she’s under tremendous pressure from her parents, whose financial problems take on added importance as Jordan comes closer to finally achieving her performance aims, and her discomfort in her own skin will resonate with anyone who’s ever been or met a teenager. Or, in fairness, anyone who’e ever been in the thirties, if my own tragic existence is anything to go by.
Redgate’s previous novel, Seven Ways We Lie, ambitiously took on the tricky task of sustaining seven different, alternating narrative voices; where that novel suffered in some ways by spreading itself a little too thin, Noteworthy presents its reader with a fully-formed and developed voice – one that is relatable, sympathetic and entertaining. Noteworthy‘s more conventional structure allows Redgate’s witty, realistic style to shine through, and this is nowhere more evident than in Jordan’s self-deprecating narrative.
My parents tracked my school performance like baseball nuts tracked the World Series. I never told people about it. A fun side effect of being Chinese is that people assume this about you already. It felt weirdly diminishing to admit it about myself, as if it simplified me to just another over-achieving Asian kid with one of those moms, even if I was in fact Asian and did have one of those moms.
At the start of this review, I suggested that Noteworthy‘s surface is all harmonies and bickering about whether to turn left or right during a chorus, but there’s plenty more bubbling under that perky exterior. As Jordan spends more time posing as Julian than actually being herself, she begins to question her very identity, in terms of gender but also sexuality. Surrounded by privilege at her fancy performing arts boarding school, Jordan’s happiness is also threatened by her parents’ financial troubles; this isn’t something that’s widely covered in YA, where every other character seems to have a personalised number-plate and their own lodge in Aspen, so Redgate’s inclusion of this very common issue is admirable. I was impressed by Jordan’s attitude, too; I can think of a large number of YA characters and, indeed, real-life teenagers who wouldn’t respond to well to threats of being removed from their dream school, but Jordan’s maturity and accountability make Noteworthy a really interesting addition to the YA canon.
Another unique feature of Noteworthy which is worth mentioning: compelled to write the lyrics for the Sharpshooters’ performances due to copyright constraints concerning well-known songs, Redgate has offered her readers a charming accompanying soundtrack, recording the songs featured in the novel. These are available at bandcamp.com and are a quite splendid way of immersing yourself more deeply in Noteworthy’s musical landscape. If all authors could provide a custom-built soundtrack to their works from this point onwards, that would be super.
Combining harmonious banter with social commentary is no easy task, and Riley Redgate should be commended on her ability to write a fun, smart novel that manages to cover race, gender, sexuality and poverty in amongst more obvious teenage fare. I found Noteworthy to be a really intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking read, and I am always right about these things.