I put The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes on my wishlist on NetGalley. Surprisingly, I got a digital advanced reader copy for an honest review. And I’m so glad the publisher offered the chance. I love reading debut authors and how they see the world.
I follow Xio Axelrod, the author, on Twitter. Whip smart and kind. There’s some element that draws you in. And it’s easy to see how she developed Antonia “Toni” Bennette in a similar fashion. Plus, having a deep background in the music industry really helped.
So let’s get onto the review. Please be aware there will be spoilers.
Toni is a character looking to move on from the trauma of her childhood, including parental abandonment and detached parents. At twenty-five, she’s ready to take on the world while fighting to keep that chance. Axelrod keeps the book in reality, often pointing out that women in the music industry are forced to take less pay and more abuse for even a fraction of the success many men take for granted. Not to say every man has an easy path, certainly men of color don’t, but there’s still a gendered advantage.
As Toni waits to try out for the Lillys as a seat filler until the original bassist can return, another candidate reminds her to not let fear overrule talent. Zeph is non-binary who upturns a lot of gendered expectations. And I loved the representation because Zeph never apologizes for their identity. Unexpected but delightful since the music business is full of talented artists that can’t be pigeon-holded.
There were a lot of great elements in the overall story line. Toni’s resolutions over her parents not being what she needed is relatable. Many people, myself included, will find that as a huge boon. You want to champion characters as a reader. And Toni does a great job of finding her own feet and letting go of old hurts.
Sebastian “Quick” Quigley is her former childhood best friend. You see the trauma when Toni’s mom sends her off to to a father she’s never met in a dying town. Bordon, Pennsylvania is everything that she’s never wanted or had. Growing up along the coast as her mom performed in dodgy venues offered some comforts. Not physical, but almost a community. People knew Mary’s kid and that offered a bit of grace.
And Sebastian was everything Toni needed at that time. When he skipped out and ruined their plans, she has zero emotional security. Dysfunction can bond like no other. When he comes back into her life, it’s an unwanted complication.
I think this is where The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes falls flat for me. I never gained any investment in Seb. Yes, his family life was hell and it was understandable, but he wasn’t a good match for Toni’s growing confidence in skill and life. In over 400 pages, the main conflict doesn’t occur for 200 pages. By then I was over his petulance and self-guilt for not taking care of Candi. Candi, the suspended bassist, became another Toni in his mind. Only without the deep, deep connections. Imagine Candi as a Paris Hilton type, just past the The Simple Life and in her early DJing days.
In all his points of view, we never really saw what Seb accomplished after abandoning Toni in a moment of fear and desperation. Brief sketches sure, but after eight years, there should be more substance and meat to his backstory. I’ve mentioned this for other reviews, but if you want me to really cheer for a couple, I need both characters to feel solid. I don’t need ‘I did what was best’ excuses after watching a character gain her ground with hard work and conflict.
Show me how he deserves her forgiveness and love. Give me that good grovel, moments of growing love, as they’ve both gone through a lot in the missing elements. He left Toni for one-third of her life. If you’re going to wait until just over fifty percent to really get into the meat of the story, make the flashbacks worth it. Let me believe in what’s being sold to the reader.
Axelrod has a lot of skill. If editing had been tighter, more streamlined, and maybe some areas in the beginning repurposed later on, the story would have been an easy four stars for me. Toni just seemed a bit out of touch for someone trying to break into the music business in the early 2020s. Social media, branding, et cetera are mandated.
Heck, TikTok has helped launch a few careers. Surprisingly.
It’s easy to understand of wanting to fly under the radar, to not be addicted like her mom, but Toni didn’t read as twenty-five. Closer to thirty. Yvette, best friend and roommate, clearly knew how to market and find information. It seems odd that a friendship that close didn’t involve any scenes of them really discussing how much Toni wanted recognition versus stability. To gain indie stability, you need to get the industry’s attention.
Overall, I thought the book is really well done. Very insightful to the business. And a cast of diverse characters and backgrounds. So many of the side characters helped solidify the band and story. A reader can easily follow their story line. I loved that Kayla spent time in Athens, Georgia. While many may know the area for the university (especially if you watch SEC football), it’s also the home of bands like R.E.M. and The B-52s. An area where indie rock has a decent foothold. Granted, I know that because Atlanta born, so others may not.
Little moments of subtle band connection is really great nod to both the indie rock scene between Athens and Atlanta, as well as establishing the band’s knowledge of bands like Alice in Chains. Actually really enjoyed when the Lillys played 1990s grunge/rock songs. I wasn’t listening much at the time but popular alternative existed pretty heavily on stations like 99X in Atlanta. A station that served Generation X and the feelings of rage against a broken system.
I need to put content warnings in the review space as well. There’s discussion of childhood abandonment, child abuse/violence, and drug addiction. There’s a lot of open drug abuse in the book, especially by Candi. I wanted to put that information out because it’s important.
Now onto the rating.
The question now is how does all that information break down on a scale? I use the CAWPILE method with a bonus of a ‘romance’ section. You can find more about the subject on Book Roast’s YouTube video.
- Character: 6.5/10
- Atmosphere: 7.5/10
- Writing: 6.5/10
- Plot: 5.75/10
- Intrigue: 5.75/10
- Logic: 6.5/10
- Enjoyment: 6.5/10
- Romance: 4.5/10
- Total rating: 6.25
The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes earned 3 stars in the breakdown. Ultimately, I think Seb’s lack of development dragged the story down for me. I needed more information, more connection beyond his self-recrimination. Toni had a lot to go through in the music industry. I loved the scenes with her and side characters like Yvette and Elton. You can see her shedding the past, if a little slowly given the book’s slow start.
Will I read Xio Alexrod again? Of course! I’m really excited to see more about the Lillys, especially Kayla and Lilly. Even Candi if she can sober up and give less of a 1990s Paris Hilton vibe. Plus, she’s created a whole Lillys band. Here’s the awesome trailer where you hear Axelrod sing.
Do I recommend The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes? If you love books about a musician, then you’ll enjoy this. There’s a lot of knowledge and great atmosphere about the industry. Plus, lots of fun jamming sessions and group dynamics. If you’re looking for romance, plan on a slower payoff. Reading recommendation is dependent on what you want.
The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes is available on May 4, 2021. Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Casablanca for the copy in exchange for an honest review.