A snide teen in ‘man­nequin’ Cal­i­for­nia

FICTION Set in the tanned, cheat­ing sub­urbs, a young girl’s mat­u­ra­tion in­ter­est­ing, but falls short

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - BRETT JOSEF GRUBISIC Brett Josef Grubisic is the au­thor of three nov­els, in­clud­ing From Up River and For One Night Only. Spe­cial to the Star

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.

HUGO EC­CLES

“Please Pro­ceed to the Near­est Exit,” Jes­sica Raya, McClel­land and Ste­wart, 384 pages, $24.95.

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