Book review: 'This Vacant Paradise' by Victoria Patterson

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Books and movies that take on shallow lives and lifestyles usually fall into one of two irritating camps: funny or moral. In the first, the author gets to poke fun at the silly characters they've created; in the other, the author gets to show how unexamined living leads to unhappiness, or worse, perdition. Either way, a great gulf opens between the creator and the characters.

In a novel, the writer has to go deep with her characters; this is why stories about shallow lives work so much better in film or television — for example, "Arrested Development." When characters are held at arms' length and judged they lose dimension and the reader loses interest.

Victoria Patterson gets around this problem in an interesting way using the literary version of what Shakespeare might have called "hoisting on their own petards," or blown up with their own mines (from "Hamlet," Act 3, Scene 4).

Almost everyone in "This Vacant Paradise," set in modern-day Newport Beach, is venal, self-centered, dishonest, focused on money, desperate for status, racist and image-obsessed. Some of the characters, like Esther, the main character, have a few but not all of these qualities.

It cannot have been easy for Patterson to watch their utter failure to connect, change, engage — any of the things that make us human. But she presents them unapologetically and does not promise any transformation.

Esther is living at home with her wealthy grandmother, who is evil incarnate. But Esther wants her money. To do this, she must convince the hideous crone that she loves her by acquiescing to her demands, which include marrying a silly, self-centered wealthy man. The use of money and status to control one's children and grandchildren is the stuff of Shakespeare and Russian novels — the burning hatred it engenders goes barreling through generations, starting wars and flattening rainforests.

In "This Vacant Paradise" it smolders in Esther, who falls in love with an academic, even as she tries to seduce an unappealing scion.

Academics, on Fashion Island, are Clinton-loving commies, always lost in thought, basically untrustworthy. So Esther is headed for the falls with no barrel, and it is fun, one must admit, to watch her go over.

In this brassy world, people "get to know" each other over martinis in an evening by sizing up clothing and cars. So it's no surprise that Patterson's early descriptions of her characters are fast and aggressive: "Paul Rice, an idiotic man with the advantage of a stunning inheritance," or Esther, "At thirty-three, she was well acquainted with the rules of attraction and commerce." "She was not unhappy, but solitary and introspective."

This kind of writing breaks rule No. 2 of creative writing (all rules, of course, exist to be broken): "Show, don't tell." One fears, however, that the writing coheres to rule No. 1: "Write what you know." For there is little beyond this world within the novel's cosmology. Maybe Esther and the academic will survive without money, on love, but Patterson throws the academic a big inheritance in the end. One wants to like Esther, who has the potential to rise above it all, but she fails us:

"No matter how much plastic surgery," she thinks, looking at female competitors in a bar, "they would never be as physically attractive as she was at this very moment." This is not the stuff revelations are made of. A reader wants the entire little planet on which these little people live — the mall and the strip of Southern California real estate, to perish in a great conflagration, James Bond style.

But no. To Patterson's credit, she goes down with the ship. These people are beyond salvation. Esther has a mini-epiphany: "For the first time, she was paying attention to people on the sidelines of wealth." It's not enough for us to root for her. No, these people will continue feeding the image forge and cranking out empty, desperate hollow men and women until the end of time.

The good news is that novels enter the bloodstream with greater permanence than television shows. And this one has a great big sign over the entryway: Do Not End Up Like This.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.

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