Tuesday, February 13, 2024

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin

California Golden
by Melanie Benjamin
352 pages
Published August 2023 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Southern California, 1960s: endless sunny days surfing in Malibu, followed by glittering neon nights at Whisky a Go Go. In an era when women are expected to be housewives, Carol Donnelly breaks the mold as a legendary female surfer struggling to compete in a male-dominated sport—and her daughters, Mindy and Ginger, bear the weight of Carol’s unconventional lifestyle. 

The Donnelly sisters grow up enduring their mother’s absence—physically, when she’s at the beach, and emotionally, the rare times she’s at home. To escape questions about Carol’s whereabouts—and to chase her elusive affection—they cut school to spend their days in the surf. From her first time on a board, Mindy is a natural, but Ginger, two years younger, feels out of place in the water. 

As they grow up and their lives diverge, Mindy and Ginger’s relationship ebbs and flows. Mindy finds herself swept up in celebrity, complete with beachside love affairs, parties at the Playboy Club, and a USO tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Ginger, desperate for a community of her own, is tugged into the dangerous counterculture of drugs and cults. But through it all, their sense of duty to each other survives, as the girls are forever connected by the emotional damage they carry from their unorthodox childhood.

My Thoughts: 

  • This is the 7th of Benjamin's books that I've read. What always intrigues me about her books is that she bases them on real women from the past, many of whom you'd be very familiar with, some you're only passingly familiar with, others you've never heard of but who hold an interesting place in history. California Golden is no exception - Carol Donnelly is loosely based on Marge Calhoun, considered the first female surfing champion. As always, the women are strong women, even when they aren't particularly likable. 
  • While this one didn't measure up to others of Benjamin's books (an opinion echoed by my book club), it does offer plenty to think about: sexism, trauma, drug abuse, mental and physical abuse, complicated family relationships, stereotypes and the boxes that women have traditionally been pushed into. Carol was not a good mother, but then she had never wanted to be a mother and always felt that circumstances had trapped her into being one. Both girls grew up craving love and attention, to an extent that almost destroyed them. 
  • Benjamin not only finds these interesting historical women, but she also researches the heck out of the places and time periods she writes about. Truly, I could feel the heat on my face, the sand under my feet, the chill of the water. Readers spend time in the nightclubs of the day, learn about the real history behind Gidget, travel to Hawaii and surfing tournaments, and even find themselves in Vietnam on an entertainment tour led by Johnny Grant, the one-time honorary mayor of Hollywood. 
  • A quibble I often have with Benjamin's books is that they can be repetitive and over full of similes. In this book, that stood out more than usual for me. 
  • While this wasn't a favorite for my book club, there was plenty to talk about and I'd recommend it on that basis. 

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