The Songs That Could Have Been

Oct 18, 2023 | Book Reviews

I appreciate authors who tackle difficult topics. Amanda Wen is one of those. In The Songs That Could Have Been, she takes on three issues: bulimia, alcoholism, and a mixed race romance. Each occurs in separate timelines of a split-time novel.

A few facts about bulimia nervosa:

  • It’s a mental disorder
  • Its hallmark is binging food, then purging
  • It may be genetic
  • Causes range from personality traits, low self-esteem, and perfectionism to the “thin beauty” ideal and pressure from social media
  • Median age of onset is eighteen years old
  • Its prevalence is 5 times higher in females than males
  • At any given time, 1.0% of young women and 0.1% of young men meet the diagnostic criteria for bulimia
  • Rates of bulimia increased during the 1980s and early 1990s and have remained nearly the same since then
  • Suicide is the number one leading cause of death among people with bulimia
  • Only one in 10 people will receive treatment
  • Though relapse occurs in 30-50 percent of cases, recovery is still possible

Facts about eating disorders in general:

  • Nine percent of the U.S. population (28.8 million Americans) will have an eating disorder in their lifetime
  • They are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second to opioid overdose
  • 10,200 deaths occur yearly due to eating disorders
  • About 26% of people with eating disorders will attempt suicide

Learn more here:

The Songs That Could Have Been is second in a 3-part series of the Sedgwick County Chronicles. The first one, Roots of Wood and Stone, I featured on the blog on June 14, 2022. 

In August, 2023, The Songs That Could Have Been won the 2023 Carol Award for contemporary fiction.

Kregel Publications (June 21, 2022)


Two couples in love. Two sets of impossible circumstances. One powerful God of grace.

After a tailspin in her late teens, Lauren Anderson’s life is finally back on track. Her battle with bulimia is under control, her career is taking off, and she’s surrounded by a loving family. Then a chance meeting with Carter Douglas, her first love and the man who broke her heart, leads to old feelings returning with new strength. And suddenly her well-balanced world is thrown off kilter.

Now a TV meteorologist, Carter is determined to make amends with Lauren. After all, she still owns his heart. But the reasons they broke up aren’t lost–and those old demons are forcing him toward the same decision he faced in the past. He isn’t sure he’s courageous enough to make a different choice this time around.

When Lauren’s elderly grandmother, Rosie, begins having nightmares about a man named Ephraim–a name her family has never heard before–a fascinating and forbidden past love comes to light. As Lauren and Carter work to uncover the untold stories of Rosie’s past in 1950s Wichita, they embark on a journey of forgiveness and second chances that will change their lives–and Rosie’s–forever. Along the way they’ll learn that God wastes nothing, his timing is perfect, and nothing is beyond his grace and redemption.

The Songs That Could Have Been is full of the same deftly handled, resonant writing that readers and critics alike enjoyed in Amanda Wen’s first book in the series. Fans of Lisa Wingate and Rachel Hauck will add Amanda Wen to their must-read shelves.


My Thoughts

If you’ve read the first book in this series, Roots of Wood and Stone, you’ll recognize Lauren Anderson from The Songs That Could Have Been. She’s Garrett’s sister, very much into food podcasts and healthy eating. You’ll also recall Garrett and Lauren’s grandmother Rosie, suffering from dementia. This second book delves into Rosie’s high school life in the 1950s.

The strong writing and imagery easily set me in both of these timelines, though the 1950s thread didn’t start till much later. Other than Rosie being Lauren’s grandma, I wondered at first how their stories would connect. But they do. I also kept wondering how Songs from the title fit into the story. But that does, too.

Lauren and Carter Douglas liked each other doing summer theater together at age seventeen. They even played the young lovers, Perchik and Hodel on Fiddler on the Roof  (like my daughter and son-in-law once did—sweet memories). But when Carter broke up with Lauren at summer’s end, she was devastated.

The point of view alternates between Carter and Lauren (it’s a romance, after all), with Rosie’s perspective in 1955, and Rosie narrating two scenes on the contemporary timeline as an old woman with dementia. Curiously, that was written in present tense, everything else in past tense.

Though some obstacles are overcome, some aren’t. Yet those disappointments serve the story in important ways.

One of those obstacles is Lauren’s bulimia, something she battled for thirteen years since Carter broke up with her. At times, body image and the need for control take precedence and order her steps. 

Another obstacle is the role his father’s alcoholism plays in Carter’s life. 

Poor Rosie, seventy years earlier, has her own mountain to climb. One that Lauren has no clue about until perusing Rosie’s high school yearbook. As the story progresses, so does the connection between each timeline. 

A few inconsistencies confused me, but I can’t say much about those or I’ll spoil it for you. I would have liked to see more dialogues between Rosie and Ephraim to show something beyond their physical attraction. I couldn’t quite grasp one of Carter’s fears, given the specific circumstances. 

But the main thing is, this is a lovely, vivid, and poignant portrait of four people who embrace life in their own way, jumping hurdles through love and loss.

Join me for some Q & A with Amanda Wen.

Author Amanda Wen

Questions about The Songs That Could Have Been

What was your inspiration for writing this story and for tackling two difficult topics—bulimia and interracial romance?

The interracial romance part came from both my own love story (my husband’s parents are from China) and a relative of my dad’s who fell in love with someone of another race in high school in the 1960s. Both families objected to the match and the couple eventually broke up.

Although the other person went on to marry and have a family, my dad’s relative never did, and I always wondered what would have happened if the families had accepted their love rather than allowing their own prejudices to get in the way. Rosie and Ephraim’s story blossomed out of that wondering.

As for the bulimia piece, that came from Lauren herself. In Roots of Wood and Stone, there’s a scene where the health-food-obsessed Lauren, in a stressful moment, digs into a chocolate cake. Garrett finds her, and the two of them had a conversation that made me think there was a lot more I had to learn about Lauren. Gradually, she revealed her secrets, and that formed the basis of her story in Songs

How was the process of writing a dual timeline story the second time? Was it easier, or did it come with new challenges?

I feel like overall the process was easier. Roots of Wood and Stone was the first split-time book I’d ever written, so I freely admit I had no idea what I was doing with regards to format, when to switch timelines, etc. Once I had that one in the bag, though, I had some guidelines to follow to keep the format consistent. 

However, writing a more recent past story meant that some readers might remember that era, so there was more pressure to get every detail exactly right. In addition, tackling racism, especially with increased racial tensions in the US, was quite challenging. I’m grateful to my sensitivity reader, fellow author Jayna Breigh, for her valuable insight!

Do the two storylines unfold at the same pace in your head, or do you know one better than the other at first? 

It depends on the book! For this one, I felt like the contemporary story fleshed itself out slightly ahead of the past story, likely because I already knew Lauren fairly well from writing Roots of Wood and Stone.

How did you decide on the specific circumstances of your heroines Lauren and Rosie? Do they hijack the story or did you have full rein?

That was all them!

What would Lauren and Rosie have to say about you?

What a fun question! I think they’d probably be a little irritated with me that I kept digging into their stories and wouldn’t let them keep secrets from me, but I’m hopeful that they’d appreciate the happy endings I was able to facilitate for them. 

What’s the most unusual thing you had to do, learn, or research to create this story?

Rosie insisted that I write a few scenes from her point of view, in first person! I balked at first, as I have no up-close-and-personal experience with Alzheimer’s, so the idea of writing from that perspective was very daunting. I even asked my editor if it would be okay, and she graciously gave her blessing. Honestly, I think those are some of my favorite scenes in the book! 

This was part two of a trilogy. Anything you want to share about Book Three?

Yes! The Rhythm of Fractured Grace releases February 20th and is available for preorder wherever you buy books! All the major characters from Roots of Wood and Stone and The Songs That Could Have Been make appearances, and we’ll get to know Sloane’s half-sister, Siobhan. Here’s the blurb: 

When a new customer brings a badly damaged violin into Siobhan Walsh’s shop, it is exactly the sort of challenge she craves. The man who brought it in is not. He’s too close to the painful past that left her heart and her faith in shambles. 

Matt Buchanan has had a rough start as the new worship pastor. A car accident on his way into town left him with a nearly totaled truck, and an heirloom violin in pieces. When he takes it to a repair shop, he’s fascinated with the restoration process–and with the edgy, closed-off woman doing the work. 

As their friendship deepens and turns into more, they both discover secrets that force them to face past wounds. And the history of the violin reveals more about their current problems than they could have ever expected. 

On the nineteenth-century Kansas frontier, a gruesome tomahawk attack wiped out most of Deborah Caldwell’s family. Her greatest solace after the tragedy is the music from her father’s prized violin. Given her horrendous scars, she’d resigned herself to a spinster’s life. But Levi Martinson’s gentle love starts to chip away at her hardened heart, until devastating details about the attack are revealed, putting their love–and Deborah’s shaky faith–to the ultimate test. 

Full of forgiveness and the message that no one is too damaged for God’s healing touch, the final book in the split-time Sedgwick County Chronicles will thrill fans of Rachel Hauck, Lisa Wingate, and Kristy Cambron.


Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . . 

If you like dual timeline, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons (formerly Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum). This dual timeline novel spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set near Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.

If you like small town stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.

All That Is Hidden awards:

  • Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
  • Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest

I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift:


Amanda Wen Bio

Amanda Wen’s debut novel, Roots of Wood and Stone, released to both reader and critical acclaim, including a Christy Award nomination for First Novel. She also placed first in multiple contests, including the 2017 Indiana Golden Opportunity Contest, the 2017 Phoenix Rattler Contest, and the 2016 ACFW First Impressions Contest, among others. In addition to her writing, Amanda is an accomplished professional cellist and pianist who frequently performs with orchestras, chamber groups, and her church’s worship team, as well as serving as a choral accompanist. A lifelong denizen of the flatlands, Amanda currently lives in Kansas with her patient, loving, and hilarious husband, their three adorable Wenlets, and a snuggly Siamese cat. Visit her on her website


Join me next time for a visit with author Sara Brunsvold. 

Meanwhile, have you read The Songs That Could Have Been or Roots of Wood and Stone? Do you enjoy dual timelines? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,


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  1. Deena Adams

    I’ve loved each of Amanda’s books I’ve read, including The Songs That Could Have Been. She’s on my new favorite authors list!

  2. Nancy Radosevich

    I haven’t read either of these books, but I do enjoy a good series! When I read novels that feature a dual timeline, I often prefer one to the other. It is always fun to see how the author brings the two together or presents patterns that work together to create a satisfying story. This novel sounds very intriguing. I’m especially interested in seeing how the bulimia and alcoholism are presented as part of the story. Thanks for introducing me to this book and author!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      It definitely takes skill to weave two storylines together effectively! And to make them both equally appealing.

  3. Stephanie H.

    I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my list of ones to try as I’ve heard such great things about it. As for dual timelines, I do enjoy reading them!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      If you like dual timelines already, I’m guessing you’ll enjoy this one.

  4. Mary Larson

    All of the background information provided helps to give greater understanding to the reader. This seems to be a unique dual timeline story. The characters appear to have a lot of depth too!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      Yes, the characters do have a lot of depth!

  5. Barbara M. Britton

    Hi Amanda. We first met when you were carrying your cello around the ACFW National Conference in Dallas. Congratulations on another winning novel.

  6. Ruth Schmeckpeper

    I have followed Amanda on social media for years but haven’t read her books, yet. I know I’d love them, so I’d better do something about that. I’m especially intrigued with the premise of book 3 in this series. Something about the violin restoration and the promise of a relationship struggle. 🙂

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I hope you read one soon. Let me know what you think afterward!

  7. Elizabeth Daghfal

    I was glad to hear this book ended happily, even if all the obstacles don’t tie into a neat bow. I’ve read another beautiful book on anorexia/bulimia, and I’ve never forgotten the story (The Happy Room by Catherine Palmer). It, too, shows how the illness isn’t so much about food but about having control of something. At the same time, this world is so caught up in mixed messages about food and what’s healthy/beautiful, and I can see this book having a strong impact on the conversation.

    Reading this review brought to mind this older girl that I knew when I was young. She had such a beautiful soul. She was so kind and thoughtful. And yet she had lost the battle against anorexia. Her body wouldn’t allow her to recover (wouldn’t process food), even when her mind had become healthier. I can’t remember exactly how old I was (9? 10?), but her life impacted me forever.

    (Sorry my comment is so sad. Clearly this book will have an emotional impact on its readers.)

    • Laura DeNooyer

      No apology needed. Your comment drives home how serious of an affliction bulemia or anorexia is. I’m sad to hear about the girl you knew who waited too long to get help. Fortunately, there is help for people who need it and want it.



  1. My Bookshelf—All the Titles in One Place - Laura DeNooyer Author - Standout Stories - […] The Songs That Could Have Been — Amanda Wen (Oct 18, 2023) — Contemporary romance/dual timeline—nowadays & 1950s. Book…

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