Golden State: A Novel
Stephanie Kegan (Twitter) (Facebook)
Simon & Schuster (February 17, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 1476709319 / 9781476709314)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, via Netgalley
What would you do if you had reason to suspect your brother—once brilliant and promising, but now reclusive and strange—might be a terrorist? How might it feel to realize that the objects of his attacks were, indirectly, the legacy of your father? Where do you go when questions like these fragment your family? These are not questions most of us are likely to confront, but Natalie Askedahl, the protagonist/narrator of Stephanie Kegan’s novel Golden State, has to deal with them all.
Set in Northern California in the mid–1990s, Golden State’s plot is clearly drawn from the case of the Unabomber, with Natalie’s older brother Bobby as the Ted Kaczynski figure, acting out his daddy issues by attempting to blow up–literally–the acclaimed state-university system his father helped build.
Although the “Cal Bomber” has been sending explosive packages to California universities for several years, Natalie is shocked into new awareness of his existence when one of them disrupts her daughter’s visit to the Berkeley campus, and when her sister Sara off-handedly wonders if the bomber could be their brother, Natalie starts digging. What she finds sets a Federal case in motion, and sends her family spinning out if control.
Debut novelist Kegan weaves some provocative questions–questions of family dynamics and legacy and moral responsibility–into a fast-moving legal procedural narrative, but the novel overall feels a bit underdeveloped. The Askedahl family’s deep California roots aren’t made to feel as significant to the story as we’re told they were supposed to be, and there are some issues with consistency of characterization. That said, this a highly readable novel with good book-club-discussion potential.
(As an aside, this is the second novel titled Golden State that I’ve read in the past year, but I don’t think they’re likely to be mistaken for each other.)
All her life, Natalie Askedahl has been the good girl, an obedient team player. Growing up as the youngest child in one of California’s most prominent political families, she worshipped her big brother, Bobby, a sensitive math prodigy who served as her protector and confidante. But after Bobby left home at sixteen on a Harvard scholarship, something changed between them as Bobby retreated deeper into his own head. Now that Natalie is a happily married, with a lawyer husband, two young daughters, and a house in the Berkeley Hills, her only real regret is losing Bobby.
Then, a bomb explodes in the middle of her ideal-seeming life. Her oldest daughter is on the Stanford campus when one person is killed and another maimed. Worse, other attacks follow across California. Frightened for her family, Natalie grows obsessed with the case of the so-called Cal Bomber, until she makes an unthinkable discovery: the bomber’s infamous manifesto reads alarmingly like the last letter she has from Bobby, whom she has seen only once in fifteen years.
Unable to face the possibility that her sweet brother could be a monster and a murderer, is confronted with a terrible choice, about who to sacrifice and who to protect. The decision she makes will send her down a rabbit hole of confusion, lies, and betrayals that threaten to destroy her relationships with everyone she holds dear. As her life splits irrevocably into before and after, what she begins to learn is that some of the most dangerous things in the world are the stories we tell ourselves.
From Chapter One (a Kindle screencap)