A migratory mother flirts with stability in first-timer Donner’s strongly realized novel of place.
Elaine is the widow behind the wheel, forever tucking daughters Hannah and Daisy into her rattletrap Datsun, their drowsy eyes opening on 11 seedy homes in just three years. Now, in the summer of 1983, the girls find themselves in LA, outside the harshly misnamed Sunset Terrace, a complex of six low-rent apartments colonized by single mothers—true “characters” all—and vivified by the children they’ve raised on cheese wieners and cherry soda. Nomads no more—so they hope—the family dares to put down its roots. Their obstacles are many. Elaine, a college-educated short-order cook, struggles to find work (one job has her squeezing whipped cream into endless pastry swans) and to make peace with the ghost of her husband, a cellist whose slow slide into dementia ended in suicide. The brooding Hannah, meanwhile, favors her pet turtle over her mother and little sister. But all changes with the introduction of Bridget, a sassy, scabby nine-year-old who, when she’s not shoplifting, chants lewd ditties from her perch atop a chain-link fence. Hannah and her mother quickly attach themselves to the waif, for different reasons, and a warm if precarious harmony ensues. Donner, who so well limns her novel’s sass, falls short in development of suspense: the jealousy that results in Bridget’s gruesome end is too faintly evidenced. This needn’t, however, deter readers from the author’s true gift, which emerges out of a deep sense of place; her Sunset Terrace approaches the snug communality of another shabby setting, that of the houseboat dwellers in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, adhering to the memory with a shrieking of gulls and a dappling of sun on cinderblock. We see through the smoke of Virginia Slims many heartfelt characters, hear through the buzz of their gossip many familiar longings.
A beckoning slice of life.