Karolina Waclawiak wants to talk about class. We're sitting at Stark Bar on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's the end of the workday, and office workers and museum goers alike are letting themselves loosen in the gently failing early evening light.
"I wanted to look at class and particularly women and class and how it can be easier for a woman to escape her origins," Waclawiak says of her second novel, "The Invaders" (Regan Arts; 240 pp., $25.95), which comes out in July.
The story of a fortysomething woman and her college-age stepson, the book takes place in an exclusive Connecticut coastal community coming apart beneath the dissatisfactions of privilege and fear. The fear is all-pervasive: fear of the outsider, fear of aging, fear of losing one's place in the social hierarchy.
As the novel begins, the female protagonist, a second wife named Cheryl, is being snubbed at a country club fashion show; her disconnection spirals out from there.
"In many ways," Waclawiak says, "Cheryl is emblematic of what is possible and what is not. It's a matter of control and who controls your life. In her world, women give up their agency for money. But once they give it up, they're at the mercy of someone who can fall out of love with them. These woman come with an expiration date, but their husbands do not."
To explore these tensions, "The Invaders" unfolds in a world where the men are mostly absent. Cheryl's husband, Jeffrey, comes and goes like a ghost, leaving her and his son Teddy, injured after a car accident, to themselves.
"We looked at each other," Cheryl reflects of her stepson, "and I wanted him to know the truth of things before he got any older. Like, one day you will love someone and then it will just go away and you will need to choose to hang on or you won't and you will never know which choice was the better one."
That they are surrounded by wealth, by advantage, does nothing to mitigate their underlying loneliness, which evokes a startling empathy.
For Waclawiak, this sense of being on the outside has been an ongoing fascination, stretching back to childhood. Born in Poland, she came to the United States with her family at age 2 and grew up in Connecticut towns not unlike the one where "The Invaders" unfolds.
And yet, she recalls, "we weren't wealthy, which led to an obsession with beaches, houses, country clubs. My mom used to drive us by the big houses and say she would be happy if she lived there."
A similar quality of yearning marks Cheryl, a working-class woman who marries into exclusivity, only to discover that happiness cannot be bought or sold. In that regard, she is not unlike Anya, narrator of Waclawiak's first novel, "How to Get Into the Twin Palms," who longs to gain access to a Russian nightclub in West Hollywood only to discover when she finally gets inside that a club is just a club.
"Yes," Waclawiak acknowledges, when I mention the connection. "Another book about getting into a club. Both deal with identity and the permeability of identity, with what is possible and what is not."
The same, of course, could be said about fiction, which is an art that grows out of the interior, that exposes characters not as they wish to be but what they are. In "The Invaders," this means revealing Cheryl's disconnection, her boredom, as well as Teddy's insolence and lack of ambition, which dissolves in the wake of his accident.
"It was a conscious choice," Waclawiak says, "to pick these two as characters. It is an uphill battle to have the reader feel for them." Still, this complexity, this tension, is what makes the novel resonate.
"I like to throw my characters in a corner, and to see what they can take. People are complicated; they act out of a variety of motivations. I think we do a disservice to readers if we don't portray that, if we only write about characters in shades of black and white."