Sea Cliff Is for Solitude: On Vendela Vida’s “We Run the Tides”
By Grace LindenFebruary 9, 2021
We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
Hearst is not the subject of Vendela Vida’s new novel, We Run the Tides (Ecco), but in a story of vulnerability and the disappearance of girlhood, she looms large, nonetheless. The year is 1984, a decade after Hearst’s abduction, and Eulabee and Maria Fabiola are best friends living in Sea Cliff, a wealthy neighborhood in San Francisco whose placid streets seem as ripe for a lemonade stand as for a murder. The wide, quiet blocks form their whole world and act as a barricade against which each girl strains. Their days are eventful in the way that everything is momentous at 13: much of what happens may be mundane, but it is thrilling regardless because it is new. They spend their time talking about boys, shopping for cheap bracelets, and going to the movies. They have loving but preoccupied parents. They mostly do well in school. Eulabee and Maria Fabiola, who have lived in Sea Cliff all their lives, who are anxious to be older than they are, “own these streets” and the nearby beaches.
Vida has said that her first three novels belonged to a triptych examining violence and rage, but the door does not seem to have been closed so firmly. Beneath the tranquil and privileged surface of We Run the Tides an undercurrent gathers force. A father kills himself. Women are leered at and humiliated. An older sister has a drug addiction. The traces of Patty Hearst, of the Manson murders, of the Zodiac Killer have not been fully excised. One morning, while walking to school, Eulabee and Maria Fabiola are approached by a man in a white car. Eulabee hears him ask for the time. Maria Fabiola swears he was masturbating. Maria Fabiola later reports the incident to the principal, a story which Eulabee refuses to corroborate. The disagreement marks the end of their friendship, forming a rift from which there can be no return. The stakes at that age are already too high, and Maria Fabiola forces them even higher.
We Run the Tides is dedicated to Vida’s childhood friends and teachers, and she notes that they all will “immediately recognize” her book to be fiction despite any apparent parallels. But Vida also traffics in literary reincarnation, so the confusion would not have been entirely misplaced: across her novels, characters are reborn with new names in new bodies. An Italian nurse becomes a Swedish nurse. A studious post-grad was once a studious teenager. In search of another life, her heroines flee over and over, to Lapland, to the Philippines, to Turkey.
Vida populates her stories with liars, runaways, the reckless — those most adept at reconfiguring their appearances, those caught in the process of becoming. She is excellent at writing teenagers, who try on and discard identities as quickly as the days pass. Their transformations are set to rushing sentences, a pace of existence which Vida renders with exceptional honesty. Events, not the calendar, rule the lives of teenagers: the upcoming school dance, the argument in the lunchroom, the embarrassing phone call. Eulabee remembers every slight, she notices what hairclips her friends wear and who has on too much makeup. Hoping to impress the boy next door, she buys a polka dot dress and tickets to see the Psychedelic Furs, a band she barely knows. To be 13 is to think you know everything when mostly you know very little. It is to be petty and self-centered, to filter the world through a veil of what looks like power but is actually terror.
When I was 13, I spent a lot of time in Sea Cliff, because I went to school there, the same school that Maria Fabiola and Eulabee attend and where Vida herself is also an alumna, though in real life, it isn’t called the Spragg School for Girls. The novel’s academic nomenclature is a nod to Edith Wharton. The area is still quiet, where cars are infrequent, and parents felt safe to let us wander around in groups of two or three. Like the novel’s protagonists, we were privileged enough to believe that we too had the run of the streets, but perhaps all those rushing toward adulthood feel the same.
I wish the novel had remained with its teenage cast, for whom adulthood is both a menace and a magnet. Though the view may be limited, it is detailed and vibrant, nonetheless. Instead, Vida elected to fast-forward through the decades, stopping the tape again in 2019, after Eulabee returns to San Francisco following a long time away. She is dismayed to find the city changed, to see that Sea Cliff is no longer hers:
The venture capitalists have taken over Pacific Heights. The young tech workers have claimed Hayes Valley, Mission Bay, and Potrero Hill — neighborhoods close to the freeway so they have easier commutes to Silicon Valley. But the CEOs and the names behind the companies live in Sea Cliff, where there is privacy and unobstructed views of the Golden Gate. Sea Cliff is for solitude, for when you want to protect yourself from people.
Whether or not San Francisco has collapsed is an argument for another essay. Certainly, there are many examples, some of which make valid points, some of which do not. This is a city that has reinvented itself on several occasions. Here is but one more skin to later shed, and I hope that that will be the case. But the parasitic growth of Silicon Valley can't be the crutch upon which all stories rest, and Vida has no need for this excursus. Eulabee didn't grow up to become a software engineer. Salesforce isn't where Maria Fabiola’s future husband works. There is more than one way to tell a story about San Francisco, there is more than one story in this city, which Vida once knew and seems to have forgotten.
In her first novel, And Now You Can Go, Ellis, enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University, flies home to San Francisco for Christmas break. Mostly she spends her time with her parents and sister, and the city emerges in the supermarkets and domestic interiors, the ordinary structures that prop up life. The settings in We Run the Tides, too, initially operate as backdrop: there is only so much of a city that can be accessed by two teenager girls. Perhaps had more of San Francisco made an appearance in We Run the Tides, Vida’s brief detour through the problems of 2019 would have made sense. But Sea Cliff has always been home to the well-off. True, tech money has transformed previously large homes into behemoths, but they were never small. Sea Cliff was designed for the wealthy, a suburban community set in the middle of a city. Such insularity is what makes the neighborhood a fitting locale for We Run the Tides, which is as much a novel of girlhood vulnerability as it is a story fortification and fear. Maria Fabiola’s disappearance captivates her myopic community; these are people who believe they are special. In an exchange with a reporter, Maria Fabiola says:
“We’re glamorous and intriguing to the outside world.”
“The outside world?” Shelley Stine says. “You mean, like India? France?”
“No,” Maria Fabiola says. “Like the rest of San Francisco.”
No one questions these girls. They know they will be believed. Excluding Eulabee’s parents, who are caring, if distracted and busy, Vida’s adults are held hostage by the children. They fear for their futures and how these teenagers might mar their reputations, and at times for the teenagers too.
Hearst does make one appearance in We Run the Tides, but only as a memory. “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Patty Hearst?” Eulabee’s father asks. “I was going to the grocery store and I saw a Chevrolet parked on the street. There was a woman with glasses in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead. And then, in the back seat, behind what looked like dog-cage wire, there was a woman lying down across the seats. I thought, That’s Patty Hearst.” As much as she haunts the novel, Hearst’s appearance thankfully is fleeting. We Run the Tides is at its most potent when the gaze remains focused on protagonists whose psychologies cannot be mapped onto larger currents. These are fluctuating figures whose relationships have a fierce ebb and flow, but the consequences are only ever small, restricted to just a few streets. Still, Eulabee and Maria Fabiola struggle to become more, to grow bigger, and Vida lets them be envious, conspiratorial, droll, dazzling; she gives them space to be unsalvageable or to be redeemed.
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.
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