Curated by ELLY HONG
For this October round of Friday Reads, we spoke with two members of our volunteer reading team. Their recommendations feature two portrayals of California that dig beneath the sunshine and glamor often associated with the state.
Recommendations: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain and Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz
Paula McLain’s When the Stars Go Dark; Recommended by Trent Kay Maverick (Volunteer Reader)
When tragedy strikes her personal life, missing persons detective Anna flees to her childhood home of Mendocino, CA, to grieve and get herself together. But when a teen girl vanishes from the sleepy seaside village, Anna gets sucked into the investigation, and must come to grips with difficult memories in order to bring the missing girl home safe. This is the first crime/suspense novel from Paula McLain, whose memoir Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses documented her traumatic childhood shuffling from one foster home to another. In this novel, several of McLain’s characters bear the scars of early abuse and abandonment—even Anna, raised by nurturing foster parents who teach her survival and healing, can’t escape the losses of her past. Anna is a broken person, but this missing girl could be her salvation. It’s a simple premise that delivers.
The novel’s mid-nineties NorCal setting hangs heavy in a story absolutely oozing with atmosphere: the shape of the houses, the smell of the sea, and the quirks of those final analog years before the Internet changed everything. The novel weaves in real missing persons cases from the era, including the infamous kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, giving the book a researched true crime feel. With the recent media circus around the disappearance and death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, the nineties-set novel raises timely questions: why certain missing persons cases become media sensations while others barely earn a mention, why the tragedy of one young woman’s life being snuffed out is so gripping and powerful for so many, and how men get away with manipulating and even murdering the women they claim to love.
Readers who love a good procedural will enjoy the tense and nuanced interrogation/interview sequences, the expanding (and then shrinking, and expanding) list of suspects, and the breadcrumb trail of clues. But there’s way more to this tale than who’s responsible, and whether the girl in question will be found alive. This is a smart, textured story that’s less about the central crime and more about what it means—for Anna, for the community, and for the countless missing whose stories are never told. It’s also a melancholy look at lost childhood, family relationships, abuse, and the pains of coming of age. In When the Stars Go Dark, McLain gives us an engaging and well-paced mystery, a darkly atmospheric take on NorCal in the 90s, a hopeful message about making peace with the past, and a pressing need to spend more time in the woods.
Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage; Recommended by Amelia Browne (Volunteer Reader)
A few weeks ago, I picked up Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage from the stacks of my local Santa Barbara bookstore. I pulled it off the shelf on instinct, curious to hold the sunny yellow paperback in my hands. Babitz paints a dazzling image of Los Angeles: barefoot surfers in the early morning, nonstop parties, actors and artists, champagne and cocaine. The ultimate chronicler of 1970s Hollywood, she depicts the glitz and the darkness, and the loneliness of Sunday mornings after golden Saturday nights. Sex and Rage is a story about a young woman’s becoming, about growing up, and about figuring out who you are without losing yourself. We follow the young protagonist Jacaranda in search of adventure, as she tries, and fails, and tries again to become a real adult.
The Virginia Woolf essay “Pictures” came to mind while I read Sex and Rage. Woolf noticed that the best writers describe a scene in such a way that the reader tunnels into the intricacies of the characters’ minds and relationships as they picture pieces of the scene, like a dining table, a fruit bowl, or the sunrise. When Jacaranda faces her own addiction and obsessions, Babitz captures the elusive in Jacaranda’s consciousness. Her sentences, word choices, and description seem to float, detailed yet suspended somewhere above reality—the way I imagine Jacaranda must feel about her alcoholism as she struggles to maintain clarity.
I sank into Babitz’s glowing Los Angeles, felt the thrill of the glamor and the danger that lives just below the allure. I recommend Sex and Rage to anyone looking to get lost in the wild of LA, and to any young woman as a reminder not to take life too seriously. Babitz gives us all permission to look on the bright side.