Catalina

Liska Jacobs

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

240pp, paperback, $15

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Click here to buy this book

 

As narrating heroines go, Elsa – the voice of Jacob’s debut – is pitched towards the lower depths of the likeability spectrum. Hard-drinking, pill-popping, drug-snorting, sexually reckless, she’s also happy with minor theft, indiscriminate seduction and generally laying waste to her own person and those of others straying into her orbit.

Elsa is back in California, where she grew up, after a short-ish, inglorious career in New York, working at MoMA and sleeping with her boss Eric. Still besotted with Eric, and too ashamed of her fall from the high pinnacle of escape and success to tell her old Californian friends, she takes refuge, initially, in a luxury hotel where life consists of getting high, getting drunk, getting laid and getting unconscious.

Eventually, though, Elsa reconnects with her old circle which include BFF Charly (and her jock husband Jared), ex-husband Roddy (who still loves Elsa), Roddy’s competitive girlfriend Jane and their new friend Tom, a rich cynic with an impressive yacht. A plan to visit the island of Catalina for the jazz festival hooks all parties together for a rancid getaway.

Elsa, we are repeatedly told, is beautiful, and Charly and Roddy clearly love her, but readers may not. This burnt-out wastrel does twang notes of self-determination and empowerment in her many monologues, and grief too for her father’s death, but it’s hard to stay in touch with her appealing – or campaigning – side among the onslaught of self-abuse and heedlessness that comprise her story.

While the drinks and drugs are plentiful, events in this book are few. The affair with Eric blossomed and ended before the narrative begins, and the trip to Catalina seems scarcely enough substance to float an entire novel, even though a dramatic event draws it to a close.

Ultimately – indeed for much of the tale – the reader is waiting for Elsa to reach bottom, cease indulging her every self-destructive whim and get on with her life. It’s a long wait and when the conclusion  comes, it shows the author maintaining her vision rather than following the predictable path. Thank heavens, at least, for a non-redemptive outcome.

Nevertheless, this darkly readable novel’s rebarbative stance comes as something of a challenge. Yes, there’s a discussion going on among writers these days about why female characters need to be nice people, but Elsa doesn’t seem so much a part of that conversation as simply the worst sinner amongst a charmless crew in a La La Land morality tale.

Californian noir? Bret Easton Ellis burnout in a skirt? Or an unusual beach read? Readers will make their own decisions, meanwhile here’s hoping Jacobs’ talent, on its next outing, will be devoted less to a one-note tune and more of a melody.

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