A snide teen in ‘mannequin’ California
FICTION Set in the tanned, cheating suburbs, a young girl’s maturation interesting, but falls short
With her sophomore novel’s alluring opening and resoundingly sober conclusion, Montreal-born, Vancouver-raised San Franciscan Jessica Raya slays the parts nearest the covers.
The catch, though: a meandering middle section of thematic fits and starts.
Without a doubt, the best throughout is Robin Fisher, 14 years old when her narration begins in 1971.
Gifted by her author with a sharp wit, she’s an absorbing tour guide as she ages two long years over the story’s duration. Bright, pensive and questioning — “I still wore a training bra, though what I was training for wasn’t clear”; “The Grand Canyon looks glorious until you realize it’s just the world’s biggest hole” — she’s a snide delight.
Brunette and bony in a world of bronzed blue eyed blonds (and, for adults, “vodka-loosened smiles”), Robin’s the quipping child of a tightly-wound insurance salesman (life motto: “We’re all just one bad decision away from disaster”) whose Canadian wife’s interior-design obsession hints at trouble to come.
She’s enrolled at Ronald Reagan High School in Golden, Calif., “a town of mannequins” that was “built on the optimism of young families who fled the city for threebedroom, two-car homes promising luxury for him and leisure for her.” “A Sodom and Gomorrah, only with nicer cars,” it’s also where, Robin observes, “even the newborns had tans.”
Before arriving in Golden, the family orders their house — a ranchstyle bungalow, or “rancher” — over the phone.
It’s supposed to be a perfect life, but marital strife soon results in dad moving into the pool shed. After a while, he leaves his wife and daughter altogether.
Barely navigating the new order at home (mom weeping or else trying to climb back into normalcy), at school Robin’s wavering between colour-co-ordinated success and the outsider status emblematized by her reluctant friendship with Carol Closter — a Joan of Arc type who possesses a zealot’s religious fervour and refuses to watch TV as it’s “an instrument of Beelzebub.”
A sexual assault and poisonous rumour later, Robin’s renamed “Pyro Slut” and learning about a “bottomless mug of things” she didn’t know about.
As inviting and enjoyable as the episodes can be, they’re missing a sense of direction. As a glimpse of a time and place, the story’s enchanting. At points, however, an authorial hand giving better shape or purposefulness to Robin’s recounting would work wonders.
“Please Proceed to the Nearest Exit,” Jessica Raya, McClelland and Stewart, 384 pages, $24.95.