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The Farewell Tour


The Farewell Tour

Stephanie Clifford, the award-winning journalist and bestselling author of EVERYBODY RISE, makes a triumphant return to fiction with THE FAREWELL TOUR. This powerful, revelatory novel introduces readers to Water Lil, your new favorite country music heroine.

The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Lena Thorsell was born in 1924 to hardscrabble people who knew the compromise one makes when settling in the West: the promise of independence in exchange for the reality that it all can disappear after a weak harvest or a bad bet at the American Legion. Together with her older sister, Henrietta, Lena dodges the scoldings of her cold, strict mother as her father seeks logging jobs on the road, leaving their mother to tend to his family’s 600-acre farm.

Devastation and despair seem inevitable in their small farming town of Walla Walla, Washington. So when Henrietta disappears one day only to come back mean and vengeful, Lena feels resigned to her never-ending punishments of being locked in an old milk shed behind the family home. But by 1934, after bad harvests, falling wheat prices, industrial revolutions and a mortgage that only seems to be growing, Lena knows she must escape. At only 10 years old, she runs away to work at a wealthy judge’s house in town, reinventing herself for the first time as Lillian Waters.

"Full of all the smart, subtextual takedowns of misogyny and inequality that readers would expect from the author of EVERYBODY RISE, THE FAREWELL TOUR announces Stephanie Clifford as a necessary and fresh voice in historical fiction."

Lillian thrives in the judge’s household, but there is one thing she misses desperately from her country upbringing: the music. She soon finds salvation in the Saturday night broadcasts of “Barn Dance,” which she listens to through the open window of a nearby house. Lillian begins looking for live performances, reading musical instrument catalogs in stores, teaching herself lyrics and chords, and, in an act of desperation that will sadden but not shock readers, seducing her boss in hopes of securing the funds to buy her own guitar. She eventually succeeds on this front, but not without realizing that the arrangement she has with the judge feels more like a prison sentence. Once again, Lillian flees, this time for Tacoma at only 16.

Writing in alternating timelines, Clifford introduces an adult Lillian Waters in 1980. At 57, she is washed up, neither a Loretta Lynn nor a Dolly Parton type and certainly not one of the young, midriff-baring starlets who have rebranded country music as something poppy and mainstream. That Lillian is past her prime is not new information to anyone, nor is the fact that she has isolated more than a few of her industry peers and even her fans after a whiskey-fueled interview in which she insulted them.

But what no one knows, not even her manager who has just booked her final farewell tour, is that Lillian has been diagnosed with “singer’s cancer,” a polyp on her vocal cord that requires immediate vocal rest followed by a risky procedure that could turn her sweet, show-stopping voice into something resembling an old motor full of rocks. Lillian knows that this is her last shot, not only to see her career reach the heights she deserves, but to confront Hen, the sister who betrayed her when she needed her most. In an act of poetic synchronicity, Lillian plans for her tour to end where she began: Walla Walla, where she will make sure that Hen regrets everything she did to her.

Tracing both the rocky start to her farewell tour and her youthful rise to stardom, Clifford introduces readers to a refreshingly alive and authentic protagonist with a straight-talking, unapologetic voice that sings from every page. Lillian moves through the hardened, dusty world of the West as the Depression descends upon her neighbors, as Pearl Harbor is attacked and men are shipped off to war, as women find direction and meaning in the world that remains, and again as men return and women are relegated to the backseat of history. She signs soul-sucking record deals, pens flavorful Western ballads, and even joins the ranks of the “real” country singers of Nashville, where being hell-bent on success is more crucial than being talented.

Although Lillian is scrappy and resourceful, she also can be blustery and self-sabotaging. This would be forgivable in her 20s, but is made soberingly clear on her farewell tour when her bandmates (the very last people who would work with her) frequently remind her to lay off the whiskey. The result is both a startling, resonant portrait of a woman creating and living in the male-dominated world of country music and a late-in-life coming-of-age drama that soars with themes of reinvention and redemption.

As meticulously researched as a period drama, THE FAREWELL TOUR covers a dizzying amount of historical ground, from major moments in American history to a sweeping education on the country music scene. This level of detail could overwhelm a weaker plot, but with her unforgettable heroine providing a perfect balance and her own cadenced, emotionally resonant prose inviting readers not just to read but to care, Clifford soars. She not only immerses her audience in the rich history of the West, she makes you feel the sticky floors of a honky-tonk after hours, the scratch of your throat after belting out a ballad, and the fringe of a bedazzled denim jacket tickling your arms. Then, when you think you’ve nailed the protagonist and predicted the plot, she upends your expectations with clever misdirects and creative renewals of old clichés, which she unpacks, defuses and rewrites with verve.

With a premise that is instantly engaging, THE FAREWELL TOUR is, on paper, a book about music and the creation of art and artistic identities. But it grounds these endeavors in something far more relatable to most readers: hard, unrelenting work. Employing her neatly written dual timeline, Clifford chronicles the work that it took to become Lillian “Water Lil” Waters, and, more importantly, what it takes to unbecome her as resilient Lillian reckons with a lifetime of career achievements and disappointments, betrayal, love and regret.

Full of all the smart, subtextual takedowns of misogyny and inequality that readers would expect from the author of EVERYBODY RISE, THE FAREWELL TOUR announces Stephanie Clifford as a necessary and fresh voice in historical fiction. Much like her indomitable protagonist, she is guaranteed to make a fan out of readers everywhere.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 10, 2023

The Farewell Tour
by Stephanie Clifford

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0063251167
  • ISBN-13: 9780063251168