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September 4, 2023

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin ~ A Review

by Susan Roberts

Two sisters navigate the turbulent, euphoric early days of California surf culture in this dazzling saga of ambition, sacrifice, and longing for a family they never had.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of historical fiction novel California Golden by Melanie Benjamin
August 2023; Delacorte Press; 978-0593497852
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); historical fiction

This well-written novel takes the readers back to the 1960s and the surf culture in California.  Many of us remember the surfing songs by the Beach Boys that were popular in the 1960s but didn't have any real understanding of the nomadic life that many of the people involved in surfing and competitions really lived.  This book is an inside look at that culture.

Carol Donelly was a well-known female surfer in a time when surfing was a men's sport.  She proved her abilities over and over and gained the respect of the male surfers.  She got married and had two daughters - Mindy and Ginger.  After her divorce, she was an absentee mother and spent many of her days at the beach, often forgetting to pick up her daughters or buy food.  The two girls decided that they could make their mother pay attention to them by getting involved in surfing.  It was a good plan for Mindy because she had the talent for it but Ginger was afraid of the water and had no love for surfing.  The two sisters were very close growing up but when Mindy starts to win competitions, their closeness diminishes.  Mindy becomes involved in movies and life among the rich and famous while Ginger becomes involved in the counterculture of cults and drugs and falls in love with an abusive man.  As the sisters grow further apart, they both still deal with their negative feelings of self-worth due to their childhoods.

Melanie did a terrific job with the setting of this novel.  You could almost hear the waves and smell the salt air.  She also got into a lot of things that were going on at that time - drugs, Vietnam, racism and sexism.  I found it very disappointing because I didn't like any of the three main characters.  Carol, the mother, should have never had children, Mindy found it too easy to leave her family behind and Ginger was a weak person who got involved with the wrong man.  Even though I didn't like the characters, I felt some sympathy and understood them more by the end of the book.

The author's research is what made this book good.  She taught her readers all about the surfing culture of the 60s as well as the prejudice against women and the effect that the war had on young people.  It wasn't my favorite book by this author but I am definitely happy that I read it.

Buy California Golden at Amazon

Susan Roberts grew up in Michigan but loves the laid-back life at her home in the Piedmont area of North Carolina where she is two hours from the beach to the east and the mountains in the west.  She reads almost anything but her favorite genres are Southern Fiction and Historical Fiction.  


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