Nina LaCour’s new novel, “Everything Leads to You,” is a modern Los Angeles love story in which friendship and attraction cross lines of class, ethnicity and sexuality and where young people find real pleasure, drama and creative possibilities in work.
LaCour has a knack for capturing the unique intensity of teenage characters discovering love, sex and intense friendship for the first time while also giving them talents and interests that make moving into adulthood look cool. Her last novel, “The Disenchantments,” followed three San Francisco teenagers taking their indie rock group on the road one last time before college broke up the band.
This time around, she gives her characters jobs they love in the film industry. But these are not the kind of fantasy clichés that come to mind when outsiders think of Hollywood. Only one character, the luscious red-haired, emerald-eyed Ava, the long-lost granddaughter of a John Wayne-like actor named Clyde Jones, is an aspiring actress. Instead, these are kids with a foothold in the more unsung but equally creative corners of the film industry.
“When you live in L.A. and work in the movies,” Emi says, “you experience the collapse of some of that fantasy. You know that the eyes glow like that because of lights placed at a specific angle and you see the actresses up close and yes, they are beautiful, but they are human size and imperfect like the rest of us.”
Emi, just turned 18, is an aspiring production designer. Her best friend, Charlotte, is an art department assistant and aspiring museum curator. Her brother, Toby, with whom she shares “a love for the movies, a love for girls, an energy level others sometimes find difficult to tolerate for a long time,” is one of the youngest location scouts in the business.
“The art department creates the world,” says Emi of her work. She spends her days combing estate sales for the perfect vintage couch to be the site of a young couple’s first make-out session, 19th century engravings that will convey another’s interest in botany, or scalloped, floral-print dishes that will remind a lonely single man of his dead mother each morning when he eats his daily egg.
Even the actual adults have jobs that make work look like fun. Toby and Emi’s parents teach at UCLA; he is a professor of pop culture, she a professor of gender and African American studies.
The novel begins as Toby, off to scout locations in Europe for the summer, offers Emi and Charlotte the use of his “classic L.A. courtyard apartment,” which, according to Emi, resembles both the apartment complex in the ‘90s buddy soap opera “Melrose Place” and David Lynch’s film “Mulholland Drive.” (Thanks to their work, Emi and her friends are fluent in film and pop culture from many different eras.) “I want you to do something with the place,” he says. “Something epic.”
Like the latter film, Charlotte and Emi’s adventure starts with a mystery caper straight out of Nancy Drew, then turns into a romance between Emi and a gorgeous woman with a mysterious background, though one far sunnier than the Lynchian version. (Charlotte, for her part, is hopelessly devoted to Toby.)
Although she’s never directly mentioned, it’s hard not to think of Francesca Lia Block, whose “Weetzie Bat” novels, first published in 1989, made her the reigning icon of young adult L.A. bohemia. (Block continues to write novels to this day.) But LaCour’s L.A., a generation later, is less giddy about flaunting difference for its own sake and much more laconic in casually taking the old different as the new normal (also, mercifully, much less infatuated with Native American headgear).
Although, for example, we know early on that Emi’s mother is a professor of African American studies, it’s not until two-thirds of the way through the novel that Jamal, a teenager meeting her family for the first time, says to Emi, “I didn’t even know you were black,” to which Emi replies, “Yeah. My grandpa’s black, so I’m a quarter,” then shows him a photograph of Toby who, we learn for the first time, is so much darker than Emi that strangers often have a hard time believing they are full siblings. “The mysteries of genetics,” says Emi, and shrugs.
While an earlier generation of American writers may have put race and sexuality out front, either as a badge of difference or a source of struggle (and expected readers to presume all characters to be straight and white unless told otherwise), in LaCour’s L.A., living in a multi-ethnic family is so unremarkable that it merits no more than a shrug.
It’s a subtle move in an already beautifully written novel in which its teenage characters interrogate themselves and each other about the best practices in finding satisfaction and joy in work, creativity, friendship and love.
Benfer is a writer who lives in New York.
Everything Leads to You
Dutton: 320 pp., $17.99