Book Review: California Gothic by Kristin Herrington

Kristin Herrington’s California Gothic is a classic case of the  “when bad books happen to good stories” phenomenon.  You know the type — all the ingredients of a great story are there, but somehow, it never gels. Despite occasionally inspired writing and a fascinating premise, something went horribly wrong with California Gothic. Sad to say, it’s nothing that a halfway-decent editor couldn’t have derailed.

First, a plot summary: before Aurora’s mother Jane passes away, she arranges for Aurora to receive a series of letters, explaining away some of the mysteries of Jane’s family. These mysteries encompass almost thirty years, beginning in the mid-1960s, when Jane, a singer in a girl group, meets J.C., a record producer, and Charlie, a member of a surf-rock band. The letters relate to Aurora Jane’s history with both J.C., who becomes Jane’s husband and father to her children, and Charlie, who becomes her lover. As Aurora learns more about her family, her life begins to unravel.

Now for the disclaimer: the plot summary makes California Gothic seem much more linear and interesting than it actually is. Which is a shame, because the premise would have made an excellent novel.

By Herrington’s own admission, Charlie is a fictional version of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who drowned in the early 1980s. As such, the story touches on some of the aspects of Wilson’s life that are ripe for fictional interpretation: the music scene of the 1960s, Wilson and his famous brothers Brian and Carl’s abuse at the hands of their father, Brian’s struggle with mental illness, and even Wilson’s acquaintance with Charles Manson and the Manson Family.

However, instead of delving into these themes, Herrington abandons them. Aside from Jane’s truncated letters, these themes are never explored at all. The good version of California Gothic would have focused on Jane, J.C. and Charlie, but the version we get instead focuses on Aurora, who is quite possibly the least interesting — nay, the least interested — protagonist in print. The reader waits for Aurora to go in search of people who knew her mother, J.C. and Charlie, in order to find out more about Jane’s glamorous, if wrenching, past. Instead, we get to read about Aurora’s mind-numbing interactions with her co-workers and her indulgences in casual sex and cigarettes — and yes, that’s just as boring as it sounds. 

This is as good a time as any to point out that California Gothic appears to be a self-published work. This is likely the reason that an excellent story is buried underneath sleepwalker-as-protagonist Aurora’s story; any sort-of engaged editor would have led Herrington away from Aurora’s story (or lack thereof) and toward Jane’s.

Any merely sentient editor would have done away completely with one aspect of California Gothic in particular: the book occasionally employs a bizarre omniscient dead narrator whose identity or purpose is never fully explained.  While the writing in the dead omniscient narrator sections is good, the whole construct was so nonsensical that I literally can’t say anything else about it, because I have no idea what to say about it.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only reader who has been or will be intrigued by California Gothic‘s premise, only to be disappointed by the book itself. I just hope that someone is inspired enough by Herrington’s book to write a novel that takes advantage of what I would have thought to be a fail-safe setting and characters.

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