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California Golden


California Golden

In an author’s note at the end of CALIFORNIA GOLDEN, Melanie Benjamin says that after her prior book, THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD, she wanted to write a historical novel set “in a world full of sun, not snow.” As the title suggests, her latest certainly fits the bill, though it’s not always sunny in its subject matter.

Benjamin takes a nonlinear approach to telling her story of the Donnelly family (who were, as she reveals in that same author’s note, inspired by actual historical figures). She focuses first on the highly unconventional childhood and upbringing (if you can even call it that) of Mindy and her younger sister, Ginger. Growing up in southern California in the 1950s, Mindy and Ginger were, like many other young people of their generation, influenced by the burgeoning California surf culture. But in their case, they were influenced even more so by their mother, Carol, a pioneering surfer at a time when very few women participated in the sport.

"This sun-drenched, cautiously optimistic novel simply begs to be read under the summer sun, against a backdrop of wave sounds."

Ever since Carol went on a surfing safari to Hawaii, resulting in the dissolution of her already fragile marriage, Mindy has been desperate not to get left behind by her mother yet again. So she becomes compelled to learn how to surf and to help Ginger do the same, so that their mother will include them in her adventures next time. And Carol does, to a certain extent, though grudgingly and at the expense of her daughters’ education and stability.

Mindy, a naturally talented athlete, excels at the sport from the beginning, soon competing alongside (and against) her mother at the most elite competitions. Ginger, a real beauty but a less dedicated surfer, comes along for the ride but defines herself more in relation to the charismatic guy surfers and less as a surfer in her own right. As the two sisters come of age, they are drawn toward different paths and away from one another in ways that will become more complicated and emotionally fraught. Can they find their way back to one another --- and to a mature, mutually respectful relationship with Carol?

The answers to these questions form much of the novel’s second half, especially once Benjamin pulls away from the sisters’ story and into Carol’s own, exploring a deeply conflicted life story shaped by gender, sexuality and war. Carol is not exactly a sympathetic character, but Benjamin vividly shows why she makes the choices that she does. In telling the stories of Carol, Mindy and Ginger, she also addresses midcentury surfing culture and its complexities, problematized by racism and sexism, while also delving into the various aspects of the California mystique --- from Hollywood to the drug culture.

I hesitate to label any book a beach read, but how could you call CALIFORNIA GOLDEN anything but? This sun-drenched, cautiously optimistic novel simply begs to be read under the summer sun, against a backdrop of wave sounds.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 11, 2023

California Golden
by Melanie Benjamin