In Lydia Kiesling’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Golden State, we accompany Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, as she flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, Honey. Bucking under the weight of being a single parent—her Turkish husband is unable to return to the United States because of a “processing error”—Daphne takes refuge in a mobile home left to her by her grandparents in hopes that the quiet will bring clarity.
But clarity proves elusive. Over the next ten days Daphne is anxious, she behaves a little erratically, she drinks too much. She wanders the town looking for anyone and anything to punctuate the long hours alone with the baby. Among others, she meets Cindy, a neighbor who is active in a secessionist movement, and befriends the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world.
My Thoughts: As I launched this journey with Daphne and her daughter Honey, I was initially underwhelmed with the first person narrative that felt like a rambling and disjointed internal monologue. The Golden State took me to the high desert, and also back in time to how Daphne first met her husband Engin, a Turkish man who is stranded in his home country due to a green card glitch that felt like a government conspiracy.
But soon I began to see Daphne’s world through her eyes, as she wanders from the mobile home inherited from her mother in Deakins Park to an assortment of diners and bars nearby, all afoot with Honey in her stroller or toddling along. Characters she met along the way felt like intruders into the life she remembered here. Cindy, part of a rabble-rousing secessionist group, is at first annoying, but later seems intrusive and jarring. Then there is Alice, in her nineties, who begins to feel almost like a comrade on this same journey.
Without regular Wi-Fi and the only occasional Skype call with her husband, Daphne turns to vodka and cigarettes while waiting out the elusive future. Over a ten-day period, she ignores the incoming e-mails from her office in San Francisco…and then suddenly, she and Alice embark on a road trip which ends with dangerous and life-changing consequences.
Until the very end, there was a lulling quality to the narrative, and then danger took us to a whole other level. My heart was pounding. Would there be a resolution? I felt it, finally, as I turned the final page. An astounding story that I didn’t love at first, and then I did. 4.5 stars.