Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate
Publisher: Amulet Books (Abrams)
Release Date: May 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight.
Then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshipped … revered … all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.
POC Character (Chinese American)
What do you do when you’ve been rejected yet again from a musical production and all hope of an acting career seems lost simply because your voice is more bass than beauty? Go undercover in an all male a cappella choir of course! Such is the conceit of Noteworthy, described by most as ‘Pitch Perfect meets She’s the Man’, which is a pretty decent summation of the novel.
‘In this particular show, even the so-called alto ensemble parts sang up to a high F-sharp, which seemed like some sort of sadistic joke. For those unfamiliar with vocal ranges: Find a dog whistle and blow it, try to sing that note, and the resulting gurgling shriek will probably sound like my attempt to sing a high F-sharp’
I laughed out loud at how utterly accurate this is, and there are many moments just like it that my fellow contraltos will find relatable beyond belief. In fact, if there’s one word I’d use to describe this book, at least for me, it’s relatable. Anyone who’s studied drama, attended a music school, has any experience of the cut-throat world of musical theatre, will understand exactly what Jordan’s life is like, and as a former musical theatre student and founder of my university’s a capella choir it felt like this book was meant for me.
I liked the way the experience of singing, especially a cappella, is portrayed in the novel – the emotional intensity, the passion and freedom and joy, as well as misery and frustration, is all conveyed beautifully in text, and honestly I would have liked even more of it on the page. As a bonus though you can listen to Riley’s own a cappella arrangements with the Noteworthy OST on soundcloud.
I also found Jordan’s confusion about her own bisexuality immensely relatable – at one point she’s asked ‘isn’t that something you just know’, and the fact she doesn’t was actually such a relief to me. Of course some people do ‘just know’, and that’s real and valid, but so is questioning and being unsure.
‘Where was the line, though? Did I want to be around her, did I want to be her, or did I want to be with her?’
I’m 38 and still have difficulty trying to understand my feelings if there’s a girl I like, and usually never manage to find an answer. If I had read this as a teen I would been reassured by Jordan’s uncertainty, and I hope other readers can view it that way as well.
Going by the vibrantly illustrated cover I expected this to be a cheerful comedy, and while there’s certainly some humour, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy permeating the book which makes Jordan’s introspection and navel-gazing – about her life at school, her parents, breaking up with her boyfriend – all the more compelling and believable. I thought the way she learns to move on from her ex was quietly powerful, allowing herself to reminisce and compare life before and after, but not letting that loss define her. I didn’t like however the typical high school bullying subplot being perpetrated by a closeted member of a rival choir; we’re meant to be sympathetic because of pressure from his father to act a certain way, but the fact one of the few gay characters was such a stereotype (and needlessly cruel to Jordan’s compassionate friend) was offputting.
‘If girlhood felt frustrating, and boyhood felt freeing, did that say more about girlhood, boyhood, or me?’
This line hit me right in the gut; as someone who is probably cis, but perpetually questioning whether I am or if I’ve just been conditioned to believe so, I think about this a lot. But Jordan knows who she is, and never truly questions her own identity, except in fleeting moments like this one. Which is actually one of the issues I had with the book – there is a singular mention of ‘appropriating trans identity’ while preparing for her role as Julian, but other than a brief wrestle with cis guilt it isn’t really brought up again. There were many passages where I felt uncomfortable, especially towards the end, imagining how the plot would have changed and characters reacted, if Jordan had been trans or genderqueer instead of using a ‘social disguise’ for ‘avant-garde theatre’. Since Jordan is not, and never claims to be trans or non-binary, it should be a moot point, but I would have liked a little more awareness in text as to how these situations would be viewed if she had been.
Noteworthy is not a book without problems, but if you’re a music lover, and especially a frustrated, always-the-sidekick-never-the-lead alto like me, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy and may want to sing its praises too.
Riley Redgate is a recent graduate of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she was an economics major. Noteworthy is her second novel. She currently lives and writes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Visit the author at http://www.rileyredgate.com.
You can purchase Noteworthy from:
I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.