Rating: 4/5 Stars
Dive into the radiant world of California Golden by Melanie Benjamin, where the sun-soaked landscapes of 1960s Southern California set the stage for a mesmerizing exploration of family dynamics, desperation, and second chances.
At the heart of the narrative is Carol Donnelly, a legendary female surfer challenging the norms of a male-dominated sport, and her daughters Mindy and Ginger. Fueled by their mother’s apparent indifference, these young sisters adopt Carol’s unwavering devotion to the ocean, normalizing PB&J sandwiches for dinner and skipping school to catch waves. While Mindy becomes a surfing sensation, basking in minor celebrity and winning competitions, Ginger finds herself entangled with the self-proclaimed ‘Surf God’ in a world of drug deals and beachside shack living.
Drawing inspiration from a real-life mother-daughter surfing trio, Benjamin weaves a tale that, though fictional, swells with authenticity. The characters’ actions are often frustrating, but they undeniably contribute to the novel’s overall impact. Despite not always being likable, the characters come alive and shine the brightest when they’re hanging ten.
What truly dazzles in this book is the key throughline: the generational echoes within a family when a woman is torn away from her true calling and thrust into a role she never desired. Through the compelling narratives of Mindy and Ginger, Benjamin explores how parental neglect leaves an indelible mark on a child’s beliefs and behaviors. Carol resists the conventional trappings of motherhood, often seeking solace by the seaside. In Carol’s absence, Mindy evolves into Ginger’s caretaker, fostering a fierce sense of self-preservation. Ginger, on the flip side, desperately seeks someone to look after her. These reverberations from their shared history resonate in their subsequent romantic relationships, adding layers of complexity to the emotional rollercoaster of the narrative.
While Benjamin introduces several additional themes, such as racism and sexuality, they tend to get lost in the soup. It would have been a bonus to see these themes more fully developed and integrated into the storyline. Nevertheless, Benjamin expertly serves up a surf culture crash course, with a sharp focus on post-World War II Southern California.
Period details occasionally border on excess (there are one too many nods to Gidget for my taste), but overall, Benjamin’s evocative writing plunges you into the music, fashion, and even cults of the 60s.
While the initial chapter may pose challenges for those unfamiliar with the 60s scene, the narrative gains momentum in Chapter 2, sweeping readers into a vivid portrayal of California’s golden allure. Benjamin’s descriptive prowess almost lets you feel the warmth of the sun on your face and taste the salt in the air.
Despite some fanciful or foreseeable twists, like Mindy rekindling an old flame during a United Service Organizations (USO) tour in Vietnam, California Golden delivers undeniable satisfaction. Benjamin’s choice of backdrop, coupled with perceptive insights into family, identity, and the enduring allure of the ocean, sets this novel apart.
While some aspects could have been fine-tuned, this book offers a gratifying reading experience that lingers in your thoughts long after the final page. Highly recommended for those in search of a groovy story with substance!
“Too brief. Too brief a time, to shine in the sun. Especially if you were a woman. Especially if you were a mother. Of daughters. Like the perfect wave that ended too soon, the ride was never long enough. The world kept spinning, the waves kept coming, the sun kept shining, but always seeking new, younger faces to bathe in its white-hot glow.” — Melanie Benjamin, California Golden
“It [California] was too big, too sunny, too full of contradictions—mountains and beaches and canyons and fog and ambition and heartbreak, relentless in its beauty, expecting too much. Or conversely, providing too many opportunities to disappear altogether, to forget who you were, or at least the best parts of who you were. There were too many chances to disappoint the people who needed you in the pursuit of that special California glow.” — Melanie Benjamin, California Golden
Ah, a shiny new release! This gem found its way onto my bookshelf thanks to an author event at Warwick’s in La Jolla.
Now, I’ve tried surfing a few times, and despite being a total barney, it was a blast. But in California Golden, it wasn’t the waves that stole the show for me. Carol did.
Yes, Carol, the remarkable athlete and remiss mother.
I suspect that many readers might not warm up to Carol’s character, but oddly enough, I found myself relating to her on some levels.
Carol harbored grand dreams of athletic glory, but fate had other plans, steering her toward marriage and motherhood at the age of 19, a common path for women in the 40s. In a desperate attempt to cling to her dreams, she embarks on an extended surf holiday in Hawaii, only to be yanked back to reality when her husband abandons their children with their grandmother. As her daughters develop an interest in surfing, Carol plays along, until Mindy outshines her in a particular competition.
I can empathize with Carol, lost in the whirlwind of parenthood, longing to recapture the essence of her former self. There are certainly moments when it feels like you’ve become a different person after having kids, a ghost of who you once were. But deep down, your old self is still there, desperate to be seen. While I don’t endorse Carol’s parenting choices, I admire her unyielding determination to preserve her identity and authenticity. But the million-dollar question is, at what price?
It’s interesting to see California Golden flipping the script on the common narrative of women surrendering their passions for family life. In this tale, women grapple with the challenge of surrendering themselves to their own interests.
As someone fortunate to have a partner who supports my personal pursuits, I’m deeply familiar with the pang of guilt that tags along. This book serves as a valuable reminder of the delicate balance we must strike between our individual passions and our familial responsibilities. It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, and it certainly shouldn’t be.
So, here’s to the pursuit of balance, both on and off the board! Now excuse me while I beeline it back to my little man.
None. This review is entirely personal and unbiased.
Title: California Golden
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: 2023
Page Count: 340
Buy it: Amazon
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