O’Connor (American River: Tributaries, 2017, etc.) returns with the second volume of her trilogy about three California families (the McPhalans, the Moraleses, and the Ashidas) whose members’ lives have repeatedly intersected over the past century.
This novel picks up in 1963, just after the tragic death of Julian McPhalan, which marked the end of the series opener. Kate McPhalan is now married to Carl Fitzgerald (née Carlos Estevan Morales), a trained symphony conductor in San Francisco. Owen McPhalan, the family patriarch and owner of the Mockingbird Valley Ranch, is a representative in the state legislature in Sacramento. Marian, his ex-wife and the mother of the three McPhalan children, is an aspiring artist in Boston. In Cleveland, the youngest McPhalan, Alexandria, nicknamed “Alex,” is studying concert piano under the tutorship of Hungarian musical genius Stefan Molnar. After Alex leaves Boston, Marian moves to New York City, where she finds a warm reception for her paintings. Meanwhile, Tommy Ashida is spending a semester in Japan, having been chosen to participate in an international studies program in architecture at the University of Kyoto. Tommy’s father once worked at Owen’s ranch, and Tommy and Kate had once been a couple. In Kyoto, Tommy meets Emiko Namura, and, for the first time since his relationship with Kate, falls in love again. O’Connor follows her characters from January 1963 to May 1970, constantly moving the action from one location to another—California, Ohio, New York, Japan, and Mexico. Many of the central characters suffer from some sort of artistic angst, and the narrative is fully loaded with fragile egos, overwrought emotions, and selfish preoccupations. In this atmosphere, Kate’s general stability is welcome relief, even as she wrestles with a few demons of her own. The complex relationships and family crises effectively parallel the turbulence of the era that provides the backdrop for addictive melodrama. A fight to establish a farm workers union, as well as references to the Vietnam War and the 1970 Kent State shootings, establish an underlying layer of tragedy. Still, the deaths of multiple characters will come as a surprise to readers.
A well-paced historical soap opera.