A Carolyn See Revival: Rereading “Making History”

Does anyone read Carolyn See ?  She is one of my favorite writers.

See (1934-2016) was a novelist, a book critic for The Washington Post, and a professor at UCLA. A few years ago I reread her masterpiece, Golden Days. In this effervescent genre-bending novel, an unconventional family in L.A. in the 1980s lives as joyously as they can in the shadow of the imminent dropping of a nuclear bomb.

See’s other novels are firmly rooted in realism.  A carpe diem attitude colors all her work:  life is fragile, but people find their joy where they can. I recently reread her novel Making History,  and though it did not affect me as strongly as it did on a first reading, I was fascinated by the characters.  In this impossible-to-classify novel,  See portrays a “blended” family  who survive one tragedy only to unravel again.  She also explores the lives of a parallel family struck by tragedy.  Then there is Thea, a woman who can see the future (not a gift in the age of AIDS), and Donny, who has lost jobs and family until Thea provides him with alternate pasts.  And, because See does not write only about the personal, she also writes about the global economy.

See’s gorgeous writing always knocks me out.  The novel begins with the observations of a benign ghost, Robin.  

No one ever said I was very bright.  But I know some stories.  I’ve got a line like every other guy.  I hang out at the beach and I wait. That’s the story on me, that’s what I’m supposed to do.  I know something now—the dead watch us with a terrible caring.  That’s not much to build a life on, but some friends of mine would argue, what’s a life?

Robin doesn’t know he’s dead–yet!  And we don’t know he’s a ghost.  He finally learns this from a fortuneteller.

See traces the effect of a car accident on the survivors and their families and friends. Seventeen-year-old Robin, the driver who becomes a ghost,  dies in a car accident: he is making a right turn when a truck plows into him.  When Wynn learns her daughter Whitney was in the car and is in the hospital, she is shocked and terrified.  And it doesn’t help that Jerry, her husband and Whitney’s stepfather, is on his way to Japan on a business trip.  He travels so much that Wynn jokes he hasn’t seen the kids since the ‘70s.

Wynn is appalled to see that Whitney has only has one tooth left, her blond hair is caked with blood, and her arm and shoulder are broken.  Wynn longs to be close again to  Whitney,  and they do become closer because of the tragedy.  And you have to love Whitney, who sticks her teeth back in her gums while her mother is out of the room, and though they are crooked, it will save them thousands in dentistry.

The whole family seems golden:  they live in the Palisades, and are rich and beautiful.  But “the real family,” as Whitney once overheard Jerry describe Wynn and his two small biological children, Josh and Tina, live in the house, while stepdaughter Whitney lives in the cupola above the garage.  But Jerry seems unhealthily obsessed with Whitney—and it is uncomfortable and even a bit creepy, but See treats this as a normal psychological phenomenon—and thank God he doesn’t overstep boundaries.  Most of his time is spent on business deals—he and his partners don’t sell things so much as ideas, and they are trying to find investors in a Paradisiacal tourist destination they hope to develop in New Guinea. I wasn’t as interested in Jerry’s business deals as I was the first time around. Perhaps I have actually absorbed some of the economic principles!

  Am I being too complicated?  Too much about the plot?  It is an uneven novel, but I love it.   Let me just say there is much joy in Whitney’s recovery, and there are many, many wonderful characters.  Whitney’s witty best friend Tracie and Tracie’s mother Kathy, who is going crazy because of a new baby, spend much time with Whitney and Wynn during Whitney’s recovery.  Wynn and Kathy have parallel lives:  both married unhappily in the ’70s, and then left with their daughters and finally married “up” into comfortable happiness.

But nothing stays the same.  And there ARE more accidents.

See reminds us that affluence is part of happiness–we don’t like to think about money, do we?–though family is also key.  But everything can changee in a minute.  

WARNING:  I cried buckets.