Rating: 5 stars
Greatest Hits is the relative rarity – a second novel which totally lives up to the hopes and expectations brought about by a massively successful first novel – in this case The Versions of Us, a book I loved in all its kaleidoscopic versions of the main characters’ lives. Greatest Hits isn’t offering readers a Sliding Doors version of life this time (if you’ve never seen this film, why not?), but is telling us the life story of Maria Cassandra Wheeler, a fictional singer-songwriter known to her legions of adoring fans worldwide as Cass Wheeler, who is now spending a day in her music studio selecting tracks for her own Greatest Hits album, choosing songs she’s written which have the greatest meaning and emotional connection for her. She’s been away from her public for a long time, and anticipation is running high. We know that she has loyal friends, amongst them Alan and Kim, and that this whole process is going to stir up memories, some of which she’d prefer to have left buried.
The novel moves through Cass’s life in sixteen chunks, each one opening with one of the songs she’s choosing, and then recounting why this particular one has been selected, what memories it evokes, from her very earliest days in the south London vicarage where she grew up with her rector father Francis and mother Margaret, going into her relationships with them and with her close friend Irene, whose family she loves and feels very much at home with. Cass has had a difficult childhood with a strained relationship with her mother right from birth and up to her mother’s desertion of the family when Cass was just ten. A loving aunt and uncle – photographer Lily and her architect husband John – stepped in and took Cass to stay with them for that first summer.
All the time the memories of Cass’s past are linked by snippets of her day spent selecting the tracks she will have on her very personal Greatest Hits. Her friends are planning a party that evening at her house, while we know that Cass is longing to hear from Larry, who is in Chicago. The music of Cass’s songs is interlinked with her memories, ranging from her early piano lessons, to the gift of a guitar from John when she went back to live with him and Lily when she was 14 years old, to disgracing herself in front of the altar of her father’s church with 18-year-old Kevin. Life in the swinging 60s and dissolute 70s in the music and arts world is vividly created, as is the stuffy rectory of the 50s.
Barnett has created a great range of characters who inhabit Cass’s world from her early days through to the present, when she is in her mid sixties and has been living as a virtual recluse for over a decade. There are the friends who work with her (her manager, Alan, and personal assistant, Kim), along with producers, designers, photographers – a host of loving loyal friends. She’s had a long and troubled relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Ivor Tait, whom she married despite knowing full well how difficult her life would be with him, and from whom she fled with their eight-year-old daughter Anna on finally admitting to herself that he couldn’t be part of her life any more. You can tell how credible I found all these people: I wept with Cass at the death of some of her closest friends and family; I rejoiced in the happiness of some and the downfall and later reformation of others; I despaired over Cass’s inability to admit to herself truths about herself and about others; I cheered her on from the sidelines and was totally involved throughout. And because of the clever structure, I kept thinking… I’ll just get to the next track; I’ll just move on to the next segment – and suddenly realised the whole evening had vanished into Cass’s world.
And to make it even better Laura Barnett has written the sixteen songs which Cass chose, and now they’ve been recorded by Kathryn Williams under the title, Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits – what more could I wish for! Greatest Hits is very definitely a great hit with this happy reader.
Reviewed by Daisy