CALIFORNIA — its rocky shores, lush valleys, and glittering streets — has long been the stuff of American literature and legend. This state was the dark setting for Chandler’s femmes fatales as well as the dusty backdrop of Steinbeck’s Great Depression.
Two novels, both by writers from California, have recently tapped into this tradition. Katherine Taylor’s Valley Fever tells the story of a woman named Ingrid who returns to California’s Central Valley to confront the responsibilities of family. In Diana Wagman’s novel Life #6, Fiona does the opposite — she leaves her husband and her home to meet a lover from her past. Both of these novels are told from the perspectives of women in pain. Ingrid returns home after the last in a series of breakups, while Fiona, who is — by all appearances — happily married, seeks her ex-boyfriend after getting a cancer diagnosis. Both her past and her present are shadowed by death: she broke up with this man 30 years ago after a harrowing sailing episode almost killed them. Both protagonists speak of emotional pain as a mixed message to the brain — a signal misinterpreted as physical damage. Even though both of these novels begin with a journey, they are, by the end, entirely different in tone and texture.
“I don’t return to places I’ve lived,” Ingrid tells us, in the first line of Taylor’s Valley Fever. As we find out, she’s made a habit of abandoning cities that require her to confront painful memories — really any city in which she’s lived. She’s finally made a home in Los Angeles, but the end of another relationship sends her back to Fresno, where she has to confront both the changing landscape for farmers and her parents’ declining financial stability. Ingrid — or “Inky,” as she’s known in Fresno — locates her family roots deep in the agricultural fields. “An hour and a half north of Hollywood,” she says,
You crest and descend toward a 23,000-square-mile quilted valley floor in varying shades of brown and green. More than twenty thousand acres of the best land in that valley belonged to Dad. He had assembled his ranch entirely on his own, beginning with one hundred acres his parents had bequeathed.
Taylor quickly establishes two strongholds of her narrative: beautiful language to describe the land, and the deeply entwined ideals of farm and family. Valley Fever is a story of revelation mitigated by slow and easy reflection. As Ingrid confronts her own long-held beliefs about her past, she is also forced to examine the way she forms her own role in relationships. She spends hours overseeing her father’s farm and driving the paths between the vines; these are moments when she has to reexamine her convictions. Taylor’s intimate knowledge of “drive-over” California slows the narrative down and provides for lengthy and ample descriptions of the local farms.
Like Ingrid, Fiona in Wagman’s Life #6 faces both present-day disappointment and the unresolved problems of her past. Even from the beginning, however, it’s clear that Fiona never seems to see herself accurately. The story begins with the mysterious boating trip that she and her then-boyfriend took 30 years ago. Fiona says, “[…] on that boat I killed a man. Back on shore, I left another one to die. Telling this tale is the only cure for history.” Wagman’s story is slowly revealed as Fiona leaves California behind and travels east. Wagman gradually arrives at the full story by structuring her chapters in alternating points of view; in the chapters detailing the past, Fiona’s (or “Io,” as her then-boyfriend Luc called her) story is told in a close third person, while chapters in the present are told in first person. This formal structure helps to separate the past from the present, making for a compellingly disjointed narrative, as well as providing insight on our main character from two directions.
While Fiona always remains the focus of Wagman’s novel, the star of Taylor’s work is the land itself, as well as the literal fruits of the farmers’ labor. Taylor’s characters — particularly Ingrid — speak of the agricultural world in California with a love and knowledge that seems largely unmatched in contemporary literature. Certainly, I’ve never encountered a similarly glittering portrait of Fresno. In one of many such passages, Ingrid speaks of the differences between homegrown fruit and store-bought:
We had one peach tree out front that Dad called the Family Tree, and we could pick peaches off it and eat them hot from the sun […] You don’t know what peaches are until you eat them hot and jammy right off the tree. I can’t eat the hard, cold two-dollar peaches from farmers’ markets in Hollywood on Ivar or on Union Square or obviously from Portobello Road. People from central California who’ve got peach trees in their yards are spoiled when it comes to fruit, and to everything else: prosciutto cured by Mr. Boschetti from his own almond-fed pigs in Firebaugh, raisins still warm and chewy from your grandmother’s backyard, cheese made by the Jensen’s Dairy daughter just south of Fresno, pistachios oven-roasted from a neighbor’s fresh crop. Food didn’t taste as good anywhere as it did at the house in Fresno.
Though this vision of agricultural plenty differs from Steinbeck’s representation of hunger and misery, Taylor’s work evokes a similar attachment and understanding of the state. Even when her descriptions feel hyperbolic, this too reflects an element of the California experience. For much of American history, California has been the stuff of tall tales, and Taylor’s characters espouse a kind of worldview that includes repeating the oral history of the land as well as the legends of the town. California’s literary tradition is rooted in Native American myth and Chicano oral history — Taylor’s work feels at home in its literary landscape. The mix of nostalgic prose and its characters’ almost prideful boasting about farming and the Fresno valley gives Valley Fever an even more realistic sense of people and place.
For the heroine of Wagman’s Life #6, on the other hand, California is a place that’s become complacent and stagnant. Fiona spends most of the book running from her life in sun-bleached Los Angeles, where she has a house, a husband and a son, and a job at the Getty Villa. “I told [my husband] I loved him too. I did. He did. But our love was like barnacles, crusty and erosive, nothing edible inside our impermeable shells. We hung on our dark wet pilings, the rotting wood of our lives. Too stuck to let go.” While the beginning of the novel suggests that the secret of Fiona’s story is what happened on the Atlantic Ocean so many years ago, the central concern, and the ultimate mystery of Wagman’s work, is whether or not Fiona will eventually leave her current husband and return to her lover on the East Coast. Or whether California, family, and stability will call her back. Because Life #6 centers on the uncomfortable voyage of an ill-fated sailboat traveling the length of the eastern seaboard, many chapters of the book sway with the protagonist’s whims. Fiona is herself ill-at-ease, and these scenes make the reader keenly feel her fear, seasickness, and the precariousness of her position.
But Fiona didn’t want to be the one to say it. Two days out to sea in a storm that was getting worse, without a rudder or an engine, but she didn’t want to look bad, to be the scaredy-cat. She had lived her life without speaking up. […] She took the pill someone handed her, snorted the line, had another drink, because she was more afraid of saying no than of car crashes, bad grades, or tainted drugs.
Fiona’s lack of self-awareness (both in the past and present) may frustrate some readers, but Wagman’s strength is examination of character, and her narration expertly guides the reader through Fiona’s sometimes painful journey. Life #6 relies on classic, dramatic irony: we know well before Fiona that she hasn’t been true to herself. She ignores the little voice in her head that tells her not to risk her marriage; her exploration of her wildest self is built upon making choices that seem out of character. Ultimately, it becomes necessary for her to act against her own interests.
Both novels are concerned with flight, which means that California, as an ever-present location in the texts, becomes both a place to flee from and to. Flight differs for these two women, who are at odds with California in different ways. In Valley Fever, Ingrid comes to realize that running away hasn’t helped her escape her problems. When her father is diagnosed with a serious illness, she finally acknowledges the urgency of her family’s needs and agrees to take over the operations of the farm.
I stood at the sink with a dish towel, drying the pot. “I’m here,” I said. I’d had to leave when I was thirteen because I hated the “here” of being here so much. But then I had to leave school, too, because I hated the “there.” And then I kept leaving places, and now I was back home. I tried to catch myself every time I called Fresno “home.”
Ingrid feels a much stronger pull from California in Valley Fever than Fiona does in Life #6. But as Fiona sets off to meet her former boyfriend — deceiving her husband and denying her own cancer diagnosis as long as possible — she too feels the magnetic draw of what she’s left behind. Both Taylor and Wagman represent the complicated pull of obligation and family. Both novels raise the question: are women always bound to choose responsibility and commitment over adventure and excitement?
When Fiona finally comes to terms with her own interpretation of the past, she also has to evaluate every decision she’s made since she left California and tried to attempt recreation of her relationship with Luc. Near the end of the novel, she finally glimpses Luc’s true nature, the character traits she was blind to in her youth, and this jolts her into rethinking how she had understood their relationship. She finally asks herself, “What would it mean if all these years I’d gotten it wrong?” By invoking the fallibility of memory, Wagman shows us how often blame rests on faulty logic. It’s easy to misunderstand something we think we remember.
In Valley Fever, the protagonist’s realization is less an acceptance of the past than an acknowledgment of her responsibility to take her family in a new direction. Taylor’s novel is about taking your place in the world, even if you never saw it as yours. This is underscored by the book’s constant examination of trust. Early on, Ingrid’s father says to her, “Integrity does count, especially on the land. You can’t have integrity on the land if you haven’t got it in your life.” It isn’t until Ingrid realizes what integrity means for her within the context of her family and community that she can at last find some kind of peace.
Katherine Taylor’s Valley Fever and Diana Wagman’s Life #6 have wholly different takes on the West Coast, but they each represent a piece of the California experience. For them, California is a study in contrasts: it is a plentiful Garden of Eden balanced on the shaking edge of the world, a fertile ground for both nurturing life and personal redefinition. Both Valley Fever and Life #6 paint a picture of women as complicated as the state they love and leave behind.