Golden State (Kiesling)


The Golden State 
Lydia Kiesling, 2018
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pp.

A gorgeous, raw debut novel about a young woman braving the ups and downs of motherhood in a fractured America

In Lydia Kiesling’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Golden State, we accompany Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, as she flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, Honey.

Bucking under the weight of being a single parent—her Turkish husband is unable to return to the United States because of a “processing error”—Daphne takes refuge in a mobile home left to her by her grandparents in hopes that the quiet will bring clarity.

But clarity proves elusive.

Over the next ten days Daphne is anxious, she behaves a little erratically, she drinks too much. She wanders the town looking for anyone and anything to punctuate the long hours alone with the baby.

Among others, she meets Cindy, a neighbor who is active in a secessionist movement, and befriends the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world.

Keenly observed, bristling with humor, and set against the beauty of a little-known part of California, The Golden State is about class and cultural breakdowns, and desperate attempts to bridge old and new worlds.

But more than anything, it is about motherhood: its voracious worry, frequent tedium, and enthralling, wondrous love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Lydia Kiesling is the editor of The Millions. Her debut novel, The Golden State, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Slate, and The New Yorker online, and have been recognized in The Best American Essays 2016. Kiesling lives in San Francisco with her family. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
The Golden State anchors Daphne’s journey in the visceral and material realities of motherhood…. As Daphne, Alice, and Honey venture across eastern California, a revelation steals upon the reader: cutting ties, packing light, and setting out on one’s own is perhaps a masculine fantasy that we’ve been asked to idealize for too long…. The novel beautifully depicts the golden light of California, the smell of the fescue grasses, the thinness of the air, and the way that Daphne and Honey often feel overwhelmed by the scale of the spaces they find themselves in. The result is less an untroubled analogy between the landscapes of motherhood and the American West than an invitation to think more deeply about how limited our canonical literary imaginings of each have been.
Sarah Blackwood - The New Yorker

Kiesling vividly renders the high desert town, its beauty and its starkness, its juniper-scented air and its neglect, the way it both centers and saps Daphne. Kiesling is also an astute cultural commentator, shedding light on our current political divide and university politics and Orientalism and the barbarism of America past and present while shedding light on parts of California often ignored by news and literature. She reminds us that the Golden State is more complexly storied than we often give it credit for; she also reminds us that for all its stretches of tedium and potential for heartbreak, the state of raising a young child can be pretty golden, too.
Gayle Brandeis - San Francisco Chronicle

Remarkable…. What Kiesling syntactically accomplishes is an exquisite look at the gulf between the narrow repetitive toil of motherhood and the sprawling intelligence of the mother that makes baby care so maddening.… We don’t get to enter a golden state without conflict or boredom. But love can persist despite crappy Skype connections, and wonder can flourish in the interstices between tasks. Mothers of babies, who have forever navigated the interplay between burden and desire, could have shown us this a long time ago if they were invited into literature. At least Daphne’s here now, buckling Honey into her stroller and leading the way.
Heather Abel - Slate

(Starred review) [I]ntimate, culturally perceptive.… Kiesling depicts parenting …with humor and brutal honesty.… But perhaps best of all is her thought-provoking portrait of a pioneer community in decline as anger and obsession fray bonds between neighbors, family, and fellow citizens.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) There's so much to love about this novel, it's possible to forgive the frequent use of long, run-on lists, a stylistic choice that becomes a bad habit. Ignore this quirk and focus instead on Daphne's honesty, insight, and efforts to sort out the best path forward. —Christine Perkins, Whatcom Cty. Lib. Syst., Bellingham, WA
Library Journal

[E]ncapsulates the intense and often conflicting feelings of early parenthood: frustration, tenderness, isolation. By playing with punctuation and sentence structure, Kiesling immerses the reader in the fragile headspace of the anxious new mother.… The Golden State sparks the lovely, lonely feelings inside us all.

A debut novel about new motherhood and political unrest…. Kiesling is a talented author …with a unique voice. She's very smart, very funny, and wonderfully empathetic. A technically uneven novel from a skilled and promising writer.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What makes Engin and Daphne a good match? What attracted them to each other, and to each other’s worlds? How does their love evolve over the course of The Golden State?

2. Daphne describes pumping milk at work, in a basement closet that houses computer servers. What does this image say about modern American motherhood?

3. As Daphne counts the dollars in her bank account and the minutes of her commute, what is she really measuring? When she returns to her grandparents’ house, how is she affected by the new daily rhythm of sleeping and feeding and playing?

4. How would you have reacted in Daphne’s situation after Engin was illegally pressured to relinquish his green card? If you could rewrite America’s immigration laws, what would you decree?

5. What viewpoints do Daphne and Cindy share? What lies at the heart of Cindy’s paranoia? Why is it difficult for her and the State of Jefferson followers to stay rooted in reality?

6. As Alice’s friendship with Daphne unfolds, what forms of caretaking do they provide to each other? If you had the chance to reconnect with a chapter from your past, what special place would you want to return to?

7. The author delivers a highly realistic depiction of workplace bureaucracy. How do Daphne’s co-workers compare to yours? How long could you be gone from the office before anyone would know you were missing?

8. Daphne recalls the tidy world that her grandparents inhabited, down to her grandmother’s immaculate golfing outfit, and the thriving small-town community where they were well-known. What caused the decline of Paiute County?

9. None of the staff at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations is a Muslim. What commentary does the novel offer on the limitations of institutions—and the power of individuals—to heal society’s fractures?

10. As Daphne comes to terms with the accident that took the life of a student (Ellery Simpson) and injured another (Maryam Khoury), what does she discover about the risks and rewards of her own cross-cultural journeys?

11. What does the novel tell us about the ability of language to connect us, even when language appears to be a barrier?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

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