Books by Carolyn See

Carolyn See is the author of five novels, including The Handyman and Golden Days. She is a book reviewer for The Washington Post and is on the board of PEN Center USA West. She has a Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA, where she is an adjunct professo

Released: May 23, 2006

"Uneven but never dull, See's seventh (after The Handyman, 1999, etc.) throws an idiosyncratic light on our contemporary age of anxiety."
Death jostles a diverse group of Californians but it's the life force that prevails here. Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 20, 2002

"Smart, savvy, and sensible."
A beginner's guide to the craft of writing and the business of publishing, from veteran novelist See (The Handyman, 1999, etc.). Read full book review >
THE HANDYMAN by Carolyn See
Released: March 1, 1999

An enchanting story by the ever-adventurous See (Making History, 1991, etc.) depicts an aspiring painter-turned-handyman who discovers —the infinite within the quotidian.— The framing device—a Guggenheim application dated August 15, 2027, and rendered in flawless grant-speak—informs us up-front that Robert Hampton will become —the preeminent international artist of the New Century— and that a group known as —Los Testigos— (witnesses) received both artworks and spiritual sustenance from him during his formative period. But when 28-year-old Bob's dejected first-person narrative begins in May 1996, he's just another drifting Los Angeleno, convinced he will never be a painter, sharing a dingy house with three other disconnected souls, marking time until the fall. Meanwhile, his flyers boasting —WHATEVER—S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!— bring calls from various people, some of whom don—t need a handyman so much as a rescue squad. Among the more desperate cases: a recently transplanted gay midwesterner unable to cope with his AIDS-stricken teenage lover, and two women so overwhelmed by bad marriages that they can care neither for their children nor their houses, which stink from ankle-deep dirty dishes and clothes. The neglected wife of a sports agent, her sexy stepdaughter, and a 60ish widow are more capable, if almost as needy. Over the course of a single summer, Bob does laundry, scours bathrooms, sorts papers, beds down with several customers, connects his roommates with others, and finds his identity as an artist in the casual pieces he creates to cheer up his unhappy clientele. The story may sound schematic in summary, especially since most of the characters can be matched with a —Testigo— from the grant application, but See's customary wit and sharp eye for the particulars of American life at the turn of the century flesh out the whole with human complexity. Undertones of spiritual as well as creative awakening are perfectly calibrated to enrich the text without weighing it down. An ambitious exploration of artistic inspiration that could have been unbearably pretentious but that instead, thanks to Bob's down- to-earth voice and the author's delicate touch, proves magical. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1995

Novelist See's (Golden Days, 1986, etc.) Dreaming is a searing memoir about drinking: about her family's relationship with alcohol—eventually, with drugs as well—and, more generally, about middle-class America's long love affair with intoxication. This clear-eyed anatomy of how addiction spreads across the generations is not for the faint-hearted. It probes painful regions of the soul that continue to obsess troubled Americans. It not only offers no cure, it offers no final argument against or for liquor. The first part of her memoir is the most compelling. See opens dramatically, painting an idyllic California backyard landscape in which a mother is beating a child. It is her mother, beating her. Exercising her considerable novelistic talents See vividly recreates her youth. She captures her mother's manifest alcoholic misery and her father's cheerful manner of masking his depression; the impact on all concerned of their divorce; and her stepparents' fascinating characters. See's own early marriages dissolve in liquor and dope-fueled scenes, as she and her father begin to move in an expertly outlined hippie milieu. See's sister Rose, meanwhile, long tortured by their mother, disappears into the wilderness of the drug culture. See devotes much space to transcribing Rose's experiences. These prove absorbing enough, but not quite in sync with See's own, despite what a late chapter title calls ``the embarrassing Californianness [sic] of it all.'' The bad times that See describes follow the patterns that obsess recovery movements (in fact, her father and stepmother were early AA adherents), but she refuses to let go of the good times, instead working heroically to cultivate a broad perspective that encompasses both. At a key moment, See claims that ``the second most boring thing in the world after people bending your ear about dreams is people bending your ear about their acid trips.'' But thankfully, with a resolute ``nevertheless!'' she tells of dreams, drinks, and trips all—proving herself exceptional for her brave storytelling, if not for her sobriety. Not the great American novel she and others in her family aspired to write—but a book that will nevertheless forever change how many of its readers imagine whatever the American dream might be. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 26, 1991

Southern California is See's home ground, and the skewering of its denizens' lifestyles her specialty (Golden Days, 1986), but, here, she breaks away with a vengeance, moving confidently into the world of international finance, pushing out to Japan and points west, letting dead men talk, and staining her home ground blood- red. The male voices are the first surprise, two very different males, polar opposites: Robin, a young beach-bum for whom life is having fun, and Jerry Bridges, a wealthy, middle-aged financier. Jerry loves money and the Orient; he is every bit as robust, and convincing, as Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy. We'll see him in action, in Tokyo to launch an American-Japanese co-venture; later on, prospecting along the Pacific Rim for a site for his ``twenty-first century city-state.'' Back home, he is king in his plush Pacific Palisades sanctuary, with the perfect (second) wife, Wynn, adorable little Josh and Tina, and a gorgeous teenage stepdaughter in Whitney (his coolness toward her masks a fierce physical desire). For Wynn, too, their home is a sanctuary, for she has moved up (and how!) from the ``dead, dank, rented bottom of the San Fernando Valley''; and, besides, Jerry is a kind man, a good man, even if forgetful of family occasions. Unfortunately, there are no sanctuaries; life is brittle, even in Pacific Palisades, for Whitney is injured in an auto accident and the driver (sweet, clowning Robin) is killed. Whitney heals, plunges back into life, loses her virginity on a Maui beach, only to die some months later, along with little Josh and 13 others, in a fiery multi-vehicle horror. Wynn has a breakdown, and Jerry (one of life's innocents, who has never seen a person die) is no help at all. Observing all this mayhem from his perch in an afterlife ruled by Buddha and Kali, Robin sends out his own delicate vibrations. See is wrestling with an old dilemma: How do you admit life's random violence into your fictional world without wrecking it? She is also (through a secondary, parallel story involving an English clairvoyant) suggesting the connectedness of all human lives. The result is flawed but fascinating: a novel that just radiates energy and marks a major step forward for this author. Read full book review >