By Michelle Richmond
Bantam Books Trade Paperback, $15, 289 pages
Life couldn’t be better, thought Julie Walker just a little while ago. She’s a young doctor, she lives in San Francisco, and she’s happily married to a wonderful man who proves his love for her every day. They’re about to adopt, legally and forever, Ethan, a beautiful little boy who returns their love several times over, also every day. Clearly, Julie’s life is, as the title tells us, a golden state.
Then, in what seems like seconds, Julie’s life falls apart. Because of a very big mistake made by Heather, her younger sister and only sibling, they lose Ethan, which so alters the golden state of her marriage that it, too, falls apart. Finally, even Julie’s belief in her beloved profession is threatened. Melodramatic as this situation might sound, and probably would be in the hands of a lesser writer, Michelle Richmond makes it plausible and suspenseful. When the book opens, in an unspecified but contemporary year, California is experiencing secessionist fever. It’s the day of the vote, and civil disturbances are occurring all over the city. However, they pale in comparison with what Julie finds when she gets to her office at the Veterans Administration hospital. A disturbed mental patient — and old friend — has taken over Julie’s office at gunpoint and is holding her three co-workers hostage. Julie is to meet Heather, now back in Julie’s life, partly to atone and partly because she is about to give birth at any hour. Instead of Julie’s office, they meet at a rundown hotel across from the VA. Both Julie and Dennis, the disturbed former patient and former friend, can look out their windows and see one another across the quad. Dennis calls Julie’s cellphone, and the action pivots back and forth as he escalates the danger. The author purposely drags out the resolution, to a point that will frustrate and perhaps annoy some readers, but there’s no denying the suspenseful thrill.
None of this happens in sequence, however. In between the scarifying conversations, we get the main characters’ main stories — back, front and side — from Julie and husband Tom’s courtship and happy marriage, to Ethan’s arrival on the scene, and Heather’s years in the military, where, she says, she met the unborn child’s father, who just happens to be bold-name famous.
Having lived with Heather’s whoppers all her life, straight-and-narrow Julie doesn’t believe her for a second, so readers are made to wait until the end to learn if little sister screwup is telling the truth. The wait, I should add, is worth it.
The author, who has four previous novels and a book of short stories to her credit, does many things well. In fact, she does all things well, from plot to setting (San Francisco makes it easier, though) to, above all, characterization. Most surprising is that she evokes what it — probably — feels like to be a general practitioner, though real doctors might not agree. (Also, Dr. Walker is so dedicated that one cannot help but wonder if the author thinks that’s the norm among M.D.s.)
The writing is very straightforward, very realistic, with no surrealism and definitely no magical realism. What you read is what you get, as in a book such as Ann Packer’s “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier” or Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”
In her breakout 2008 novel “The Year of the Fog” (which became a New York Times best-seller), Ms. Richmond also featured the loss of a child as central to the plot, and her writing about this subject is quite good, compelling without becoming saccharine.
For example, when Ethan’s birth mother, an addict, brings him to the medical clinic in the Tenderloin, where Julie volunteers, Ms. Richmond writes, “At one point he toddled across the floor, patted my knees with his dimpled hands, laid his head down on my lap, and started sucking his thumb. My heart turned over; I was instantly disarmed. I put my hand on his head, then his cheek, which was red and warm from fever. His unruly curls were as soft as air, his skin improbably smooth.”
I don’t know about you, but I can see that kid. I can see this kid, too, Heather’s daughter, as Aunt Julie holds her: “It is something astonishing, the sleep of a newborn baby, so deep and still. And then the infant opens her tiny eyes, and a bewildered gaze falls on my face. I know she can’t really see me and yet she appears to be looking into my eyes. I am amazed and confused. It is as if she can see right through me. If there is such a thing as deja vu, then there is also this: an unexpected moment, completely new, unlike anything I have experienced before.”
That phrase, “an unexpected moment, completely new, unlike anything I have experienced before,” is an excellent definition of what one gets when reading good writing, and especially good fiction.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.