“The Golden State,” an impressive and insightful debut novel by San Francisco writer Lydia Kiesling, is a book about motherhood, aging, loss and love.
Written with humor and wisdom, it combines a coming-of-age story with a transformational California road trip. In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Sal Paradise is a Beat Generation wanderer. His road trip takes him to San Francisco on a restless odyssey. In Kiesling’s novel, Daphne Nilsen is an overwhelmed millennial mother who leaves San Francisco in search of a way forward.
Daphne, in her early 30s, works at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at UC Berkeley. Her Turkish husband Engin has been waiting in Istanbul for five months for a bureaucratic visa snafu to be resolved. He longs to return to San Francisco and restart his life with Daphne and their 16-month-old daughter, Honey. While waiting, the couple use Skype to stay connected and plot immigration tactics.
Daphne feels isolated and alone taking care of Honey. When a student Daphne advised is involved in a horrific car crash in Turkey, Daphne is devastated. She feels responsible for the tragedy and the news triggers painful emotions about her own troubles.
She leaves work, packs her car, retrieves Honey from day care and bolts from the Bay Area. Her destination is the fictional town of Altavista in the high California desert where multiple generations of her family had lived. She and Honey begin their escape by way of El Cerrito, Richmond, the Nut Tree and Sacramento.
Daphne has no plan. She is pulled viscerally to the quiet beauty of Altavista and the tidy doublewide mobile home she inherited from her mother. In those peaceful surroundings she had felt the loving embrace of her parents and grandparents.
At a town diner, Daphne meets a forthright and philosophical 92-year-old woman named Alice, who has driven from Colorado to visit a sacred spot from her lost life with her husband. Daphne learns that Alice’s husband died 50 years earlier, the first of many losses she has suffered. Alice’s reflections and her resilience impress Daphne. She muses, “I feel there is something accusatory in her tone, as if to say, ‘I didn’t have some little meltdown like you seem to be having over nothing.’” This imagined rebuke actually empowers Daphne.
With minimal punctuation and few paragraph breaks, the novel feels like an intimate conversation. Ten chapters shape the story: one for each day she is away from the Bay Area on her pilgrimage to the high plains. Kiesling is best when she describes the exhilarating love and enervating boredom Daphne experiences caring for Honey. Though she is sometimes resentful, Daphne’s love for Honey is fierce, her devotion total. Yet fears haunt her: “Why did I have a child? To have a child is to court loss.”
Like the caterpillar in the book she reads to Honey, Daphne needs energy to advance to the next stage of her life as she sorts out how she arrived at her breaking point and how to move forward. An orphan without siblings, a wife deprived of her husband and a single parent with a job and a toddler, Daphne has been plodding along unconscious of her accumulating grief.
Visiting her safe space, laden with meaning and memories, she better understands both the emptiness and fullness of her life. By the novel’s end, we understand the full contours of Daphne’s existential crisis and we are now rooting for her to find her golden state.
Katherine Read blogs at https://readsreading.blogspot.com