Susanna Kaysen once said that what inspired her to write Girl, Interrupted was ‘rage and a desire to dissect this world.’ The book, about her stay in a mental hospital in the 1960s, was not a traditional misery memoir of personal confession, it was postmodern and episodic, full of silences and omissions – an ‘artefact’ rather than a transcription of reality.
The filmed version abandoned this structure for a more traditional narrative arc, so much so that Kaysen said she felt like she ‘didn’t even write this book’. Despite its deviation from the source material, the film’s central performances from Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie still encapsulated the madness and despair of the book. The excellent soundtrack used sixties pop songs with sweetly miserable lyrics like ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark and in one shocking and brutal sequence ‘The End of the World’ by Skeeter Davis.
A few years ago plans were made to write a Girl, Interrupted stage musical and singer songwriter Aimee Mann was enlisted to compose the music. The project is much delayed and may never see the light of day, so Mann decided to release the songs separately as a full album.
‘Queens of the Summer Hotel’ uses the original elliptical nature of the book’s structure and successfully captures the true essence of the source material in beautiful songs of despair, dark humour and quiet hope.
Despite admitting to never having seen the movie, Mann echoes its sixties style piano pop soundtrack, a shimmering sheen which glosses the lyrical horrors underneath. ‘You Fall’ opens the album, detailing how easy it is to collapse into madness.
The hospital which Kaysen stayed in also treated Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, who Mann sings of in a wistful melody, delineating the tragic split between the poetry and the ‘ghoulish pantomime’ of their lives.
There is an undercurrent of rage in ‘Give Me Fifteen’ a darkly humorous song about the quality of treatments given to patients at the time, with the recurrent vignette ‘Checks’ similarly showing the lack of care and attention many received.
The title of the book was inspired by a painting by Vermeer, which can be seen at the Frick Museum. Mann’s song takes us to that place, a moment of contemplation where the narrator begins to understand the ‘warning’ of that existential crisis captured in paint.
Many of the songs on the album are inspired by the horror stories of the other patients Kaysen met inside, like ‘If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now’, ‘In Mexico’ and ‘Burn it Out’. The latter is one of the musical highlights of the album, referencing the character of Polly who was played with eerie brilliance by Elisabeth Moss in the movie.
The two best songs are ‘Suicide is Murder’ and ‘I See You’ which work together to answer the question as to why Kaysen lived when other patients like Plath died. Survivors understand the violent reality of suicide, can cling on to the edge long enough to learn the consequences of letting go. To be seen by someone, to be heard, to know you’re not alone, can equally be a lifesaver.
As we listen to Mann’s songs, we create another connection with art, like she had with Kaysen’s book and Kaysen had with the painting she saw. We see each other. If you recognise despair, you will find a comforting mirror in these songs.
Kaysen finishes her book with a reflection on art, writing about the sunshine in the Vermeer painting:
‘Light like this does not exist, but we wish it did. We wish the sun could make us young and beautiful…most of all we wish that everyone we knew could be brightened simply by our looking at them.’
‘Queens of the Summer Hotel’ offers us such a moment of musical solace. A faithful and illuminating companion piece, which is a testament to the inspiring links between women artists and further evidence of Aimee Mann’s underrated genius.