This Vacant Paradise, Victoria Patterson, Counterpoint, 2011, 320 pp
I was introduced to Victoria Patterson through her essay in the wonderful collection, Bound to Last. This is her first novel, set in Newport Beach, CA. Esther Wilson is poised on the fault line between privilege and economic distress. Her beauty and the demands of super matriarch Grandma Eileen require a suitable husband if only she can find one that appeals to her at least a little. The trouble is that at 33, time is running out, not to mention that her current suitor fills her with boredom and incipient nausea.
Esther is such an old fashioned name. Newport Beach is truly an enclave of political conservatism and vapid imitative wealthy culture. Grandma Eileen suffers from gout, an addiction to Heinekens and a deep discontent with her offspring. In fact, Esther's father was kicked out of the family home when his sexual preferences became known and while Esther and her brother Eric were raised by their single gay father, she ended up back at Grandma Eileen's after his death. Eric became a homeless junkie. The entire scenario is a meld of modern day dysfunction and the stuffy yet desperate feeling of aristocratic downfall.
Victoria Patterson lived in Newport Beach during her middle school and high school years. Clearly she did not fit in. Her portraits of both the rich and those on the fringe are drawn with a fierce yet humorous satire. When Esther, who must work at a women's clothing boutique in the high end Fashion Island shopping plaza for her spending money, falls in love with Charlie Murphy, things begin to shift. She experiences a sexual, social and even intellectual awakening that endangers her precarious position as an inheritor of Grandma Eileen's fortune. The novel is an intricate picture of Esther's simultaneous economic downward spiral and the uplifting awareness of her selfhood.
If that sounds dreary or heavy, it is. But Patterson's writing is so good, so crystalline and so full of dark humor, that the readers suffers with Esther while having frequent laughs over the grandmother, not to mention the "best friend" Brenda whose plastic surgery, shopping, interior decorating and hours at beauty spas are not enough to hold her fabulously rich husband. Paul, the prospective suitor, tall, pale, nervous and a terrible kisser, is cringe inducing. Charlie, as the lover, a deserter from his successful father's family business, considers himself socially enlightened and attracts female students at the local community college where he teaches. In fact, Charlie has quite a thing for women, though he is especially smitten with Esther. His desires are as self-involved as any Newport Beach denizen. The sex between them is hot, lusty and actually well written.
The aptly titled This Vacant Paradise raises numerous questions concerning wealth, social class, the position of women and the role of family. Are we really as modern and conscious as we think we are? How do the attitudes of families with recently acquired money determine the destinies of their descendants?
The author read and re-read the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James while writing this novel patterned on The House of Mirth. We are fortunate as readers in the early years of the 21st century, to have new writers possessed of the skill to address the human condition with the depth of literary fiction in addition to the page turning craft found in bestselling thrillers, mysteries and romances. Victoria Patterson revels in these skills. I think she is an author to read now and to watch in the future.
(This Vacant Paradise is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)