Book Talk: *So L.A.*, by Bridget Hoida

cover of SO L.A. by Bridget Hoida, via publisher (Lettered Press)

So L.A.
Bridget Hoida (Facebook)
Lettered Press (2012), trade paperback original (ISBN 0985129433 / 9780985129439)
Fiction, 384 pages
Source: publisher
Reason for Reading: TLC Book Tour, CBS LA’s Summer Reading Guide

Opening lines: “The nine people I know in Los Angeles—and by know, I don’t mean people I lunch with, I mean the nine people who have seen me naked—those nine people would never believe it, but sometimes in the San Joaquin Valley it gets so hot the fields spontaneously catch fire. Just lick and burn and an entire crop of asparagus, Tokay seedless, rutabaga, hothouse or what have you are quite literally up in smoke. They didn’t believe it the first time and they won’t believe it the second, when I tell them about the ash that folds like walnuts into the swimming pool and the radio warnings to keep the dog off the asphalt. People from Los Angeles aren’t too good at willing suspension of disbelief, unless of course it involves Hollywood-celebrity-cellulite-secrets and million-dollar-mascara-wars, so I don’t much expect them to empathize with the Lodi fireman, dressed in yellow gear and aiming a single hose, not at the blaze, but at the sky. Firing water upwards into the clouds and watching it waterfall against the air and onto the charred umber.

“But, before I go too far, I suppose you could say the reverse is also true.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Magdalena de la Cruz breezed through Berkeley and built an empire selling designer water. She’d never felt awkward or unattractive… until she moved to Los Angeles. In L.A., where “everything smells like acetone and Errol Flynn,” Magdalena attempts to reinvent herself as a geographically appropriate bombshell—with rhinestones, silicone and gin—as she seeks an escape from her unraveling marriage and the traumatic death of her younger brother, Junah. 

Magdalena’s Los Angeles is glitzy and glamorous but also a landscape of the absurd. Her languidly lyrical voice provides a travel guide for a city of make-believe, where even Hollywood insiders feel left out.

Comments: The construction of Bridget Hoida’s debut novel, So L.A., consciously mimics that of the art form for which the city is best known: the movies. The book’s five sections are “takes,” the chapter titles would be appropriate to a screenplay, the physical descriptions are vivid and detailed, and the acknowledgements pages are (cleverly, I thought) presented in the style of film credits. And like some movies, the tone veers abruptly from comic to dramatic, and from down-to-earth to “what planet is this?”–it’s frustrating at times, and you wonder what it might have been if it had just settled down. But it’s compulsively watchable (or in this case, readable), and there’s enough good stuff in it that you’ll be interested to see what this writer/director does next.

Los Angeles is a city whose biggest industry is built on make-believe (and yes, that includes “reality” TV) and whose related mythology is based on self-reinvention, and Hoida’s Magdalena de la Cruz seems to be embracing it. She inhabits the glittery, status-conscious, idle-rich world that both promotes and feeds that myth–the “L.A.” that many people who know this city only from its entertainment products may think is the real thing, but that relatively few of its residents ever approach. Unlike many, Magdalena didn’t come here to act; she and her husband Ricky struck it rich in bottled water, and they moved from their home in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley to cultivate (no pun intended) this prime market. But there’s no question that during most of the time they’ve lived in Southern California, Magdalena has been acting out–transforming herself physically and behaviorally–driven by deep emotional conflicts perpetuated by the sudden death of her beloved brother two years earlier.

The sources of Magdalena’s conflicts are gradually revealed; they’re also responsible for the novel’s frequent tonal shifts, which I confess aggravated me at times. At one point I decided Magdalena just might be an unreliable narrator–I’m not completely sure Hoida intended her to be (although there are some self-aware passages suggesting that she did), but I enjoyed the novel more once I stopped fully trusting what the character was telling me. Oddly, it made her voice more authentic to me.

I’ve lived in the Greater Los Angeles area for a decade. It’s made me aware just how LA-centric many of the references in popular entertainment are–not just the geographical ones, either–and often caused me to wonder how those references are taken in by viewers and readers who don’t know this place. I suppose they’re what shapes the perceptions of the outside world–that is, they frame the concept of what is “so L.A.”–and I sometimes think they’re portrayed most effectively by those who bring their outsider perspective here. NorCal transplant Hoida accomplishes that, even as she furthers the myth-making.

Bridget Hoida shows talent and promise as a novelist, but So L.A. is a bit of a misfit. It seems to want to be a lightweight, breezy beach read, but it’s got a bit too much darkness and complexity underneath for that. I found it a sometimes frustrating, deeply moving in spots, occasionally nonsensical, and consistently interesting…come to think of it, it really might be pretty L.A.

Rating: 3.75/5
Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Wednesday, August 15th: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, August 16th: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Monday, August 20th: Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, August 22nd: Sweet Southern Home
Thursday, August 23rd: Book Chatter
Monday, August 27th: Reviews by Molly
Tuesday, August 28th: Travel Spot 
Wednesday, August 29th: Book Club Classics!
Thursday, August 30th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, September 4th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, September 6th: Bookish Whimsy
Friday, September 7th: In the Next Room
Monday, September 10th: Colloquium
Tuesday, September 11th: Oh! Paper Pages
Wednesday, September 12th: Conceptual Reception
Thursday, September 13th: Seaside Book Nook

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