Against the backdrop of Philadelphia and New York’s indie rock music scene, Philly author Xio Axelrod’s new novel The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes follows Antonia “Toni” Bennette, a young rock guitarist at a crossroads.
A guitarist grows up
Toni grew up accompanying her mother Mary, a blues guitarist, from gig to gig up and down the East Coast. But when Mary gets an opportunity and can’t take Toni with her, she sends Toni to rural Pennsylvania to live with her father Mo, whom she has never met. Mo is hard and emotionally distant, but Toni finds solace with her best friend Sebastian “Seb” Quigley, a fellow guitarist and rock aficionado. They plan to someday leave town and make it big together, but things don’t go as planned.
Eight years later Toni is a struggling musician in Philadelphia, working as a “hired gun” guitarist, filling in for bands and recordings, and trying to scrape together enough money to become a partner at the legendary Phactory recording studio. In order to finance her investment in the Phactory she joins the Lillys, a rising all-women rock band as a temporary guitarist. When she learns that a reinvented Seb is the band’s manager, she must confront her teenage heartbreak.
She must also reckon with her own values and ambition as an artist. The decidedly non-starry-eyed Toni, having no wish to follow her mother’s stymied quest for success, distrusts fame and the commercial music industry. Years of emotional trauma have also built her protective shell and cultivated a desire to stay a solo artist. But she is drawn to the warmth and the community the Lillys offer, and finds her shared history and synchronicity with Seb hard to resist.
A sweet and thoughtful start
Axelrod, who like Toni grew up in the music industry and is a recording artist herself, also explores racism, sexism, and exploitation within music industry. Toni, a Black woman working in a genre dominated by white men, is repeatedly gaslit, underestimated, and overlooked. We see how the industry commodifies artists, particularly women, whose public images are valued more than the music they make. “There are…things we have to do to get to the top, and things we have to do stay on top once we get there,” says lead singer Lilly in a resigned moment. “If you’re not making money, making music is a hobby.”
And yet the other romance of the novel is between the characters and their work. They bond over their love of favorite bands, express their feelings in original song, and we spend copious time in rehearsal and performance spaces with Toni and the Lillys, experiencing their sheer joy of creating as an ensemble. In The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes, music is the basis for love, friendship, and families, chosen and not.
This is the first of a series of novels about the Lillys, with each book focusing on a different band member. Soulful and full of heart, The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes is a sweet and thoughtful start to their story, in which finding a place of one’s own is as important as finding a love with whom to share it.
Image description: The cover of The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod. A color illustration shows a Black woman wearing sunglasses with music and clef notes on the lenses. Superimposed over her in pink, white, yellow, blue, white, pink, and blue text respectively are the title of the book, and the author’s name.
What, When, Where
The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes. By Xio Axelrod. Naperville: Sourcebooks Casablanca, May 4, 2021. 464 pages, paperback; $14.99. Get it at bookshop.org.