September 12, 2016
Monday Review: PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith
Synopsis: "The thing I'm finally learning is that someone can be your best friend in the world, but you're not necessarily theirs."
Pasadena. It's not L.A., but there is something quintessentially L.A. about it nevertheless: dusty brown hills, Santa Ana winds, that wish-we-were-Hollywood vibe. It resonates in stories and movies, and it resonated with me, as someone born in the town next door and brought up within an hour's drive. And the setting makes an appropriate title for this book, in which the city itself is almost a character in its constant presence.
It feels that way to seventeen-year-old Jude, too—only she is an outsider, having moved to SoCal from the East Coast a few years before, and Pasadena is not necessarily a benign character in her life. It brought her and her mother away from their painful past, but it also brought in Mom's creepy, sleazy boyfriend Roy. And it brought her a new best friend, Maggie Kim—but it took Maggie away. The novel opens with us finding out that Maggie was found dead, floating in the family swimming pool, an apparent suicide. The mysterious tragedy becomes more and more peculiar the more details emerge, and it forces Jude to examine her own life and how well she really knew her best friend. And, as it turns out, maybe nobody really knew Maggie Kim, not entirely.
Observations: This is a fascinating piece in its structure, because there is the obvious mystery of Maggie Kim and how and why she died, but then there's an inner mystery as well—the mystery of the narrator, which the author skillfully sneaks in around the edges, hinting at Jude's past through her present-day actions. Why is she so virulently repulsed by her mother's boyfriend Roy? Why does she keep pushing away her friend Joey, who obviously loves her and wants more than friendship? Why is she so convinced her friend's death wasn't a suicide—what's at stake for her in proving that it wasn't?
Appropriately, with the past and present mysteries both intertwining in this book, the author interweaves scenes of the past and present: Jude and Maggie's friendship in the past, as Jude tries to examine every detail of their friendship for clues to Maggie's actions, and Jude's determined and relentless quest in the present to unearth the real story of her friend's death. And of course, what she finds out along the way makes her question how well she really knew her friend at all—which is a feeling that anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide will recognize.
Like a tinted overlay in photography, the almost palpable presence of the setting informs the story on a constant basis, and grounds it in space—but not in time, because there is a timeless quality to it in the sense of it feeling frozen almost, a moment lived and relived again and again as Jude continues to search for something she might have missed. The varied and colorful cast of side characters—their sort of ancillary friends—are almost more a part of that setting rather than individuals in themselves; character archetypes that inhabit the social imaginary of youth in SoCal: Hank and Eppie the hippie surf bums, Luke the neurotic Chinese-American kid yearning to fit in, Dane and Tallulah the sickeningly picture-perfect perma-couple. There's a slight feeling of unreality to it all—which provides just the right amount of balance (or imbalance) to the all-too-real events of the plot.
Conclusion: This is an emotion-packed, suspenseful read, with a diverse cast of characters (diverse in a non-self-conscious, effortless way, and in a way that is very California). It's also got somewhat of a twist ending that will leave you questioning how easy it is for someone to hide their real selves in plain sight—I definitely felt very differently about the main characters at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. A very intriguing book that's a not-quite-thriller, not-quite-mystery, not-quite-issue-book, but something surprising and unusual all to itself in the way the story unfolds.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley. You can find PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!