Wander Woman

The Golden State: A Novel BY Lydia Kiesling. MCD. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of The Golden State: A Novel

The usual thing, in book reviewing, is to start with the positive. Polite book reviewers devote most of the allotted space to sympathetic description of the book’s plot, intentions, mise-en-scène, use of language, etc., before pivoting into faint, almost sorrowful criticism, as if the reviewer is pained by her contractual obligation to point out these flaws.

I’m as guilty of this as the next person. Nevertheless I’d like to reverse the practice here. The first few pages of Lydia Kiesling’s new novel, The Golden State, are not very good, are in fact very nearly bad. They are confusing, alternately opaque and overly elaborated, rife with narrative missteps and lapses in authorial judgment that suggest this will be a much less skillfully written and successful novel than it actually is.

The book opens with this paragraph:

I am staring out the window of my office and thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue. Through the wall I hear the muffled voice of Meredith shouting on the phone in laborious Arabic with one of her friend—colleagues, and in my mind’s eye I see the house sitting empty up there, a homely beige rectangle with a brown latticed deck and a tiny green wraparound lawn to its left, a free-standing garage to its right, and beyond that an empty lot with juniper shrubs and patches of tall grass where the deer like to pick. Technically it is a double-wide mobile home, although it does not look mobile—it’s not on wheels or blocks; it has a proper covered foundation, or at least the appearance of one, and could not be mistaken for a trailer. Technically I own this house, because my grandparents left it to my mother and when she died she left it to me.

Several things are going on here. For one, we are being situated in the narrator’s present reality, in her office. We are also being introduced to the subject of her thoughts, the house with the fescue. (For the sake of brevity, let’s ignore the mysterious reference to “thinking about death,” which adds another element to this opening.) Because we are simultaneously trying to make sense of the interesting present environment—what kind of office is this where people speak Arabic? Who is Meredith and why is she yelling?—our imaginations are not entirely free to begin picturing the house that is being so meticulously described. Had Kiesling instead left aside for a moment the present—the office—and instead begun with a few sentences about the house and the smell of its environs, we could have gone seamlessly to work conjuring all this up before we were even introduced to the office, etc.

Or she could have taken the opposite tack, been sparer in her description of the house, allowing us to get better situated in the present while giving us just enough information to know that the narrator’s mind is far away, on a house she owns. Certain details—the fact that the house in question is a mobile home, for example—could have been withheld for a bit. That one in particular might have worked well a few pages later, when the narrator—a young mother named Daphne, we eventually learn—finds herself standing in front of said house. The reader is, at this point, grounded in the narrative and ready to populate Daphne’s world with detail. This would also ring truer to how people think: A person is more likely to imagine a stranger’s judgment of a house when she is seeing it for the first time in years than when she is privately longing for the house. And it would be a natural lead-in to an observation that Daphne does make upon arriving at the house: “It sounds like hair-splitting to parse the varieties of mobile home, like something only a person obsessed with imperceptible class minutiae would do, but there are mobile homes and mobile homes.”

Simone Blain, Mother and Child (detail), 2018, oil on canvas, 401⁄2 × 281⁄2".
Simone Blain, Mother and Child (detail), 2018, oil on canvas, 401⁄2 × 281⁄2".

The thicket-like quality of the opening paragraph, where many elements are present without being quite effective, isn’t a one-off. There is a similarly inelegant quality in the way the novel’s central narrative through line is introduced. In the book’s opening pages, we are barraged with minutiae: We are told how many times Daphne hit Snooze on the alarm clock that morning, what time to the minute she and her sixteen-month-old daughter left the house and what time they arrived at day care, exactly how much money, to the cent, Daphne owes to the office petty-cash fund, how much money she and her husband have in their bank accounts, and what websites she checked that morning. The intention of all this is perhaps for Daphne to come across as factual and no-nonsense—someone who reports events accurately, without inserting drama—but it feels more like nervous chatter.

The beginning of a novel does more than introduce characters and set plot in motion—it transmits tone, style, conveys its gestalt. But here the book thankfully changes course.

It turns out that Daphne’s husband, who is Turkish, has been stuck in Istanbul for months, unable to return to the United States because of a problem with his visa. For all of this time, Daphne has been on her own with their toddler, Honey. It has gotten to her. And so, on a whim, she leaves work, picks up Honey, and takes off, driving eight hours from San Francisco, to her grandparents’ house in the remote inland town of Altavista.

Soon after, the real voice of the book—dry, observant, self-aware, smart without being showy—begins to emerge. The novel’s mood doesn’t so much shift—the early pages were too confused and logorrheic to have one—as settle. In addition to her husband’s absence, Daphne has suffered other losses, including the death of both her parents; she is lonely, touchingly so. She is also intellectually curious, sensitive, and consistently interesting in her thoughts. The book reflects her voice; it is gently sad but warm and frequently funny too. Altavista, Daphne tells us, embodies “the real West”—“high, thin, stony,” distinct from the “maximalist blue-sky beauty of Montana or Wyoming, [with their] blowsy hills like big green breasts.” And here she is on the bureaucracy of the university where she teaches (which sounds a lot like UC Berkeley): “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but, the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms.”

Unmoored from her day-to-day life, Daphne has little to do but wander around Altavista with her daughter. This setup—and the rural setting—gives Kiesling ample opportunity to riff on issues larger than her protagonist’s marital plight. An ex-Ph.D. student, married to an aspiring filmmaker from a Muslim country, Daphne doesn’t exactly fit in in a town where many people are apt to emphasize Barack Obama’s middle name—Hussein—when they refer to the forty-fourth president. In her interactions, Daphne feels class guilt, self—consciousness about her own lack of practical skills, and contempt for the prejudices she runs into.

The Golden State bears some resemblance to a flaneur novel. But if it is a flaneur novel, it represents a step forward for the genre. The roving male protagonist who observes the world around him from a position of detachment has been replaced by a narrator who combines an abstract intellectual interest in politics and class and national identity with insights into her own relationships and emotional life.

Daphne is especially acute about parenting a small child. I hesitated to bring this up, afraid I’d inadvertently dissuade male readers from picking up the book, worried that even the best intentioned among them would think they were reading between the lines that the novel is “mom lit,” a book to buy for a wife or sister but not one they ought themselves to read. But this aspect of the book is central to what Kiesling has accomplished.

Too much bad mom lit features mother-protagonists who breathily recount supposedly heretical thoughts, as if admitting to craving a drink or cigarette or one-night stand while being a mom were an act of bravery, or inherently interesting. What Kiesling does is very different. Respectfully but unsentimentally, she articulates the sorts of emotional drama that undergird life with a small child, giving shape and consequence to the joy, boredom, nostalgia, tenderness, and frustration that parenting constantly provokes. Here, for example, are Daphne’s thoughts after she puts Honey in her Pack ’n Play for a nap one morning:

I crack the door and leave the bedroom and immediately her cries begin but I determine them to be a feint and not substantive. I pause to feel sad that this store of Honey-based knowledge I have been building up which is so insanely specific to this time and place and person will live and die with the versions of me and her that exist at this moment. And that Engin is missing his chance to amass this same knowledge, if indeed this knowledge has that same weight for fathers as for mothers.

Here, even Daphne’s anxieties are conveyed stylishly, wittily. When Honey begins turning the pages of a picture book too quickly for Daphne to read the text aloud, the mother thinks, “I hope she is not hyperactive requiring treatment.” The lack of punctuation is a great touch because it so effectively captures the rhythm of this kind thought.

Situating motherhood prominently within a book that is as smart, as socially engaged, and as intellectually ambitious as this one is itself a consequential act, one that many of us are apt to applaud on its face, regardless of the book’s literary merits. But if we want to make a deep and long-lasting change to the status quo—expand the cultural consensus about what is important enough to merit serious literary treatment—it’s as important that Kiesling’s account of parenting a small child succeeds on purely aesthetic grounds. Which it does.

Which brings me back to why I am so frustrated by the novel’s opening pages. It would be a shame if readers were to put this one down too soon. After ten or fifteen pages, The Golden State becomes what it should have been all along: an excellent, accomplished, original novel, one of the best I’ve read in a while.

Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt, 2013).