The Girls From Corona del Mar
In female friendships — especially those between girls as they mature — the halves of such pairs are often considered in contrast to one another. One is “the pretty one” and one is “the smart one.” Or one is “wild” while the other is “responsible.” Whether or not these descriptors are accurate for either girl — especially over the long march of time — doesn’t matter. Beliefs about who we are get etched into our consciousness, and they can blind us to the truth of who we become or who we have been all along.
In Rufi Thorpe’s excellent debut novel, Mia is the awkward one; the headstrong, careless one; the one whose mother is drunk and whose stepfather is a callous jerk. Her best friend, Lorrie Ann, is beautiful, thoughtful, serene, and, though not financially secure, loved intensely by her close-knit family. As the two grow up together in Southern California, Mia is envious of the ease with which Lorrie Ann seems to exist, while her own life is rife with burdens. But all is not as it seems. Narrated by
Mia, The Girls From Corona
del Mar tracks what she sees, knows, and tries to understand about Lorrie Ann’s life as they graduate from high school and go their separate ways, carrying on a long- distance friendship as best they can.
Mia crosses the country for college, while Lorrie Ann decides to marry her high school sweetheart because she is pregnant. The delivery goes awry, and the baby is born disabled. This is one in a series of tragedies that befall Mia’s heretofore graced friend, while Mia discovers a passion for Sumerian poetry and the world of academia and finds herself easily partnered with Franklin, a man who shares her interests. Whenever Lorrie Ann calls, Mia tries to be a good friend to her, which becomes more difficult when Mia moves to Turkey for her research. For a long time, Mia believes that Lorrie Ann is embracing a more dangerous lifestyle due to external circumstances that have traumatized her, but eventually she has to face the possibility that she never really knew her friend as well as she thought she did, which means she might not know herself as well as she thinks she does.
Mia’s voice is interesting in its unevenness. She is both the kind of person who would break her own toe to make a critical lie more convincing and the kind of person whose powers of description verge on the lyrical, almost the sentimental. For most of the book, she considers herself to be the former kind of person — cold, hard, desperate — because of a couple of dark acts she committed when she was growing up. As Lorrie Ann reveals herself to be colder, harder, and more desperate than Mia has ever envisioned herself to be, Mia can reconcile being more than the choices she made under duress before she was old enough to have better control of that duress. Thorpe’s prose sometimes heightens itself into purple, but these moments of waxing poetic have their own energy, which echoes the ebb and flow of Mia’s understanding.
Thorpe explores the difference between being damaged and being ruined — against a backdrop that is increasingly heady. Mia gets deeper into translations of poetry about the goddess Inanna and begins to consider her life in the context of ancient metaphors for love. Lorrie Ann, once considered just as intelligent as her friend, feels left behind when conversations take an intellectual turn, and there is a sense that she is almost a caricature of an uneducated person who married too young — before we are reminded that getting married and having a baby was a choice she made. The other option, which would have been to get an abortion and go away to college as she’d planned, is presented unequivocally by Mia as the choice she didn’t make, the choice that would undoubtedly have altered the course of the next decade.
“I wanted to slap her,” Mia says. “It was almost as though she were playing dumb, exaggerating her own California valley-girl cadences … her protestations of ignorance rang false with me, and I could only assume they were designed either to flatter Franklin or to injure me in some way, to lure me into being some kind of pretentious pedant as an obscure punishment.”
Mia’s concern for Lorrie Ann may be misplaced. Is Mia a caring lifelong friend, or is she overbearing — prying into things that are none of her business? When your best friend seems to be purposely jumping off a bridge, does it make you “judgmental” if you express dismay and try to talk her down off the railing? Thorpe asks what happens to the people we used to know when we stop knowing them — and what happens to us.
— Jennifer Levin
Sometimes the most gripping tales aren’t steeped in espionage or set in faraway lands. Familiar characters don’t necessarily need to be household names plucked from history books. The beauty of Owen’s Daughter, the 12th and latest novel by Santa Fe’s own Jo-Ann Mapson, is the realistic pathos of the human condition experienced by characters who could live right next door. If you’re human, you can’t help but relate to it.
What could be more suspenseful than parent-child relationships, lifechanging health conditions, fragile or broken love connections, and the steep climb out of the abyss of addiction? These travails, set against a Santa Fe backdrop so vivid that the city becomes a mood instead of a star on a map, besiege characters so rich and well developed that the reader can visualize each one. The cadence of each voice and the posture each person would strike walking into or out of a room take shape quickly, thanks to Mapson’s thrifty tone.
Mapson introduces us to Skye Elliot as she’s about to exit rehab, bitter and still craving booze and pills but determined to reclaim her 4-year-old daughter, Grace. Finding Grace proves arduous, as her rodeo-cowboy daddy, Skye’s estranged husband, has seemingly vanished with her. Enter another cowboy daddy — Skye’s father, Owen Garrett. After years of absence from Skye’s life, he shows up on horseback to whisk his daughter away from rehab. Throughout their years of distance, father and daughter have traveled parallel tracks. Both have struggled with alcoholism that has at times landed them in trouble with the law. Both have changed their names, hoping to reinvent themselves and leave behind who they once were. And both harbor an enduring love of horses. Together they bunk down at a vacant Canyon Road home that belongs to Skye’s mother and Owen’s ex-wife, self-absorbed Sheila. She seldom occupies the house, jet-setting instead with her plastic-surgeon husband.
Tumult follows Margaret Yearwood, a 50-year-old divorcée still haunted by her love for none other than Owen, who disappeared from her life a decade before with little warning. Margaret endures the death of the aging aunt she has cared for, catastrophic news about her own health, and the unexpected return of her petulant deaf son, Peter, a 20-something whose marriage is in shambles.
Skye’s quest to find Grace, and Owen’s push to find a job working with horses so he can help bankroll the search, leads to Margaret’s neighbors Glory and Joe Vigil. That connection and a chance encounter with Peter bring Owen and Margaret (whose torrid affair was the subject of Mapson’s novel Blue Rodeo) back to each other. They reunite romantically, to the chagrin of Peter and the delight of Skye. After explaining his disappearance a decade earlier — a prison stretch for his role in a violent fight — Owen quickly reawakens the passion that he and Margaret never let die.
An apparition that could reside almost anywhere in this 400-year-old town observes the whole story as it unfolds, but her presence in the book is sparse enough to keep the plot largely believable. The author treats us to a few unpredictable plot twists in the homestretch, but the true appeal of
Owen’s Daughter lies in the shared experience — or potential for it — that resides within us all.
For readers familiar with Santa Fe, it holds a bonus. They’ll recognize local haunts and their distinctive flavors — even a few people, from concho-belted socialites to plain-spoken vaqueros and families with centuries of roots here. Together, these elements give readers who know our city the sense that Mapson is whispering a secret in their ears.
— Patrick Malone