Singer’s first book is a memoir of two obsessions: with California and with finding a place for herself.
The story begins with the dissolution of the author’s family and her move, at 16, with younger siblings, mother, and stepfather, from Montreal to California, a place with which she has been absorbed for years. “My affair with California begins many years before we meet,” writes the author, recalling an early library encounter with a book about the Golden State. “A state?” she wondered. “Like New York, where we drive once a year across the border to do our school shopping, hiding new clothes and shoes deep in our Jeep’s trunk on the way back, away from the customs officials so we don’t have to pay extra taxes?” Singer’s glee at being in California was complicated by a custody battle involving one of her brothers. “Are you sexually active?” That was the question the opposing counsel asked her just before she took the stand on her mother’s behalf. It was a treacherous moment, but while Singer draws her structure from it—the book is built, more or less, as a series of interrogations and responses—she is interested in treachery of a more personal sort. The author is at her best when she uses narrative to examine disconnection, as with the Taylors, a family for whom she worked yet never quite belonged. “Two of my own families,” she writes, “have already exploded. Nuclear family has not proved successful, but still I am drawn to it.” This search for place took Singer north, where she researched a serial killer in Yosemite, though she was really looking for herself. As the book progresses, it becomes less fragmentary. On one hand, that’s inevitable given the difficulty of stitching together a book of fragments. On the other, it’s disappointing given the strength of her fractured approach.
A mostly compelling book about a complicated question: if identity is made of memory and memory does not cohere, how do we build a self from the shards?