Golden State: A Novel
Michelle Richmond (Twitter) (Facebook)
Bantam (February 2014), Trade paper (ISBN 0385343280 / 9780385343282)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: Purchased ebook (iBooks edition, ISBN 9780345532404)
Southern-rooted, San Francisco-based Michelle Richmond was my “Must-Read Author Discovery” of 2008 thanks to her novels The Year of Fog and No One You Know, but I’d lost touch with her a bit until her latest novel, Golden State, was published earlier this year. Certain elements here will be familiar to those who’ve read this author’s earlier works: a San Francisco setting, characters with ties to the Deep South, a deep bond between sisters, and a romantic relationship strained by a tragedy involving a child. However, despite all those similarities, Golden State is not a reworking of a story Richmond has already told.
Golden State takes place on one exceedingly eventful day in the life of Dr. Julie Walker, a physician at the VA hospital in San Francisco. She’s turning 40 and signing divorce papers, after having spent one last night with her soon-to-be ex-husband. Her unmarried younger sister is about to give birth. It’s the day that Californians are voting on whether to secede from the United States—which could leave Julie out of a job. It’s the day that she finds that she has caused a hostage situation because local upheaval over the secession vote delayed her getting to work…and that situation will force her to deliver her sister’s baby. As Julie tries to manage her sister’s labor and the hostage-taker’s demands, she reflects on her long and complicated relationships with both of these people, and how they factored into the breakdown of her marriage.
The California-secession angle could be the basis for some fascinating speculative fiction, but here it’s ultimately just that, an angle–a relevant one, but not as critical to the overall narrative as it seems like it will be early in the novel. I’d actually like to read that story, but it’s not the one Richmond’s offering here, and I’m not exactly sure I’d want her to be the one to write it—I’m not certain it would play to her strengths. Her strengths lie in character development and the depiction of complex relationships, and those are deployed quite effectively in Golden State, providing a framework for insights about fate, choices, and how our lives become what they are.
“But the thing about reinvention is, no matter how much you change everything on the outside, you still know where you came from. You’ve still got all that stuff from middle school clanging around in your system. It’s almost like you’re living a double life, just waiting to be caught. Waiting for someone to walk up to you and say, ‘I know who you are. Enough with the charade.’”
“’We become so accustomed to the patterns we create for ourselves,’ he said, his voice full of excitement. ‘We become so used to the way things are—scientifically, cosmically, personally—that we can’t imagine things being any other way. But there’s always another way. Common wisdom is, don’t buy a lottery ticket, because no one wins the lottery. But here’s the thing: someone always does win the lottery.’”
“I never expected to find myself here, on the edge of the continent—forty, childless, possibly jobless, with broken bones and a broken marriage, citizen of a broken country. But here I am, and I must make something of it. That’s really the only choice one has: make something of it, or don’t—a choice my mother failed to make after my father died, a choice my sister has completely embraced.”
Richmond effectively balances an account of the tension and suspense of one particular day–and between an impending birth and a disgruntled, gun-wielding veteran, there are literally life-and-death stakes here–with an exploration of the emotional connections, conflicts, and personal histories underlying them. Golden State is involving and affecting, and was a welcome reminder of what I discovered in Michelle Richmond’s fiction years ago.
Doctor Julie Walker has just signed her divorce papers when she receives news that her younger sister, Heather, has gone into labor. Though theirs is a strained relationship, Julie sets out for the hospital to be at her sister’s side—no easy task since the streets of San Francisco are filled with tension and strife. Today is also the day that Julie will find herself at the epicenter of a violent standoff in which she is forced to examine both the promising and the painful parts of her past—her Southern childhood; her romance with her husband, Tom; her estrangement from Heather; and the shattering incident that led to her greatest heartbreak.
Infused with emotional depth and poignancy, Golden State takes readers on a journey over the course of a single, unforgettable day—through an extraordinary landscape of love, loss, and hope.
“The reception area of the tiny hotel is eerily empty. On the desk, a coffee mug smeared with red lipstick sits beside a small televi- sion, the volume turned up high, blaring news of the vote. Eleanor’s mug, Eleanor’s lipstick. Famously difficult Eleanor.
“I leave my crutches behind and use the rail to pull myself up the stairs. At the top, I turn left. The first room is empty, the door open to reveal two twin beds, an old dresser, blood on the floor.
“I continue along the hallway. The second door is closed. Room 2B. Heather’s room. Early this morning, while I was still sleeping on the couch of a radio station at the other end of the city, my phone began to vibrate. It was Heather, texting: It’s time. It seems like a life- time ago.”