A sometimes slow-moving but evocative study in the oddball psychology—or better, psychologies—that is as much a Southern California hallmark as sun and surf.
Winnie Parker, her first name suggestive of victory, is a classic casualty: Her husband, a TV celebrity, has dumped her for a young woman with perfect breasts (“Lacy said Jessica’s boobs were fake, but Winnie thought they were just fresh and unused”), and now she’s left to cope with the harrowing hells of raising a teenage daughter single-handedly. Lacy, the rebellious daughter, is experimenting with things Winnie would prefer her to stay away from. From nearby, someone is watching all this, biding his time like a coiled rattlesnake until striking—in this instance, by kidnapping Winnie for reasons that become darker as the story unfolds. Wagman (Spontaneous, 2000, etc.), a screenwriter and novelist, is perfectly at home along the tortuous freeways and hidden arroyos of L.A.; a bonus of her insightful character study is a tour of the strange world of reptile trading, with the villain of the piece keeping his house jungly hot for the benefit of an iguana and another very bad person who “masqueraded as a photographer” stripping the wild of skinks and chameleons, snakes and salamanders. The bad guys are as redneck as the protagonist of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief but with nowhere near the manners, and it’s Winnie’s challenge to keep up with and stay ahead of them while remaining unraped and unkilled. In the end, what unfolds is a perfect plan gone awry—though, dreamed up by stupid people, the plan is of course nowhere near perfect, and therefore it goes just as sideways as it was foreordained to do. The atmosphere is as dense as the steamy, iguana-rich jungle of Oren’s dreams, with Wagman’s pacing sometimes slowing to a crawl, whereupon the impatient reader will have to resist the urge to jump ahead and get on with it.
The opportunities for cliché are endless, but Wagman avoids most of them. Matters of timing aside, a satisfying glimpse into a herpetological demimonde—and the weird households of sunny SoCal.