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Lost & Found: Karen Karbo on Carolyn See

Okay, Mom, so we meant to give you your present yesterday, but the glitter glue was still wet, and then today when the glitter glue dried, the macaroni and googly eyes fell off… anyway, it’s a work in progress.  How about a Lost & Found instead?  Here’s Karen Karbo on Carolyn See’s Rhine Maidens, a tale of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, California-style.  Need more Karen?  We’re pleased to announced she’ll be part of this year’s Tin House Writer’s Workshop faculty.

Key difference between Wagnerian and Californian Rhine Maidens? The bikinis.

Carolyn See’s 1981 novel Rhine Maidens is not a Lost and Found, but a Found and Kept. Through two moves—one from Los Angeles to Portland Oregon—and one divorce, it’s been with me always. I left the Norton Anthology of English Literature behind, with all my tiny, laborious marginalia, as well as a number of other books I would, if pressed, list as favorites. I don’t even have a copy of my own first novel.

Rhine Maidens was originally published by Putnam’s in 1981. My copy is a trade paperback from the Penguin Contemporary American Fiction series, published in 1983. It had been recommended by a friend, but I was in my early twenties then, and broke. I bought it used for $2.95. My name is written in ostentatiously large black script on the inside cover; I remember writing it just before I lent it to someone. I wrote it to underscore my point: I want this one back. When I started making more money, I would give books I liked away to friends. I figured I could always buy another copy if I wanted it back. But this one has always been precious. I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of the appeal for me was purely nostalgia.

Carolyn See, the author of nine novels and works of non-fiction, including Golden Days (1987), Making History (1991), The Handyman (1995), and the terrific memoir Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America (1995), writes about California in a way that gets to the heart of a native: what it’s like to drive down Wilshire Boulevard on a foggy midnight. The preternaturally cheerful Brentwood matrons who live to play tennis and have the current PC bumper sticker on their Mercedes station wagon. The God-awful cattle feedlots that skirt I-5 in the hot, dusty dead center of the state.  The Jacaranda trees and night-blooming jasmine.

There are more objective reasons See’s second novel remains a great read twenty years after its publication. (Even references to est don’t seem to date it much.) The zippy pacing; the mix of hilarity and poignancy that rivals Lorrie Moore; the timeless familial angst writ large on every page. Rhine Maidens is a mother-daughter smackdown, told in kicking-and-spitting double narratives. Grace is the mother, a sixty-three year old divorcee and widow living in Coalinga, one of those scorched Central California towns surrounded by oil wells. Tumbleweeds and sand blow against the side of Grace’s shabby rent-controlled apartment, scorpions show up daily in her tub. Grace was beautiful at twenty, and it’s been downhill ever since. Her first husband left her; her second husband was a drunk who up and died. Life hasn’t been fun since sometime in the ‘40s, when she used to go dancing at the Ambassador Hotel. Her narrative is addressed to her best friend, Pearl, long dead.

Garnet, Grace’s daughter, escaped the heat of Coalinga and married Ian Evans, a line produced of television shows with hair transplants and suspiciously long hours, even by Hollywood standards. Garnet has a big house in Brentwood, an interior decorator, an overpriced garden, two preteenaged children whom she indulges and who despise her. She envies Candy Spelling’s cutting garden. She swims daily laps in her pool. She says things like, “I know the right caterer for our exact social class, and I’m in touch enough to know about the new Chinese restaurant on North Broadway (Not what to order. I leave that to my husband.)” Her narrative is in the form of a journal for a creative writing class at UCLA.

Grace opens her scree with “I never said I was easy to get along with.”

Garnet opens hers with “I am very sorry to have to start this course—and this journal—with an apology.”

It’s a little like reading a female version of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, another book that I never leave behind.

Due to reasons best discovered for yourself, Grace is forced to live with Garnet and her family in Brentwood for several weeks. It’s a disaster. Garnet devotes herself to trying to show her mother a good time; she takes to the Getty, out to lunch at carefully chosen L.A. hotspots, to a ladies’ book club at Grace’s beloved Ambassador Hotel. This only fuels Grace’s derision. She cannot stop bitching and moaning. Grace is jealous of her daughter because she has money and a family; Garnet is jealous of her mother because she’s tough and beautiful. Around and around it goes. The voices of these women are nothing less than a pair of howls in the Southern California wilderness.

Despite the current endless cultural yammering about girrrrrl power and aggressive girls, and self-conscious tomes like Elizabeth’s Wurtzel’s lame-o Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), most writers these days—and by “writers” I suppose I mean women writers—are careful to make their heroines feisty and opinionated, but never flat out bitchy, never plain old cranky for no reason other than life sucks. The secret is not to avoid writing nasty female characters, but to convey the anguish beneath their on-going bad moods.

I once read a review in the Washington Post of Carolyn See’s work. The reviewer accused her of writing “surfer” prose. I remember laughing; I knew it was supposed to be a slam, but to me it sounded like a compliment. (Maybe it did to See, too; her response was to send the reviewer a book on surfing, with her regards.) See works a sentence and a story like a surfer does a wave: sliding fast down its glassy face, finding surprising little places to cut in and out, playing it out to its perfect end.

Karen Karbo is the author of the best-selling kick ass women trilogy, including The Gospel According to Coco Chanel and How Georgia Became O’Keeffe. Her memoir,The Stuff of Life, was a New York Times Notable Book and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

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