This Vacant Paradise
(Counterpoint Press, 2011)
Have you ever felt like a blonde, 30-something woman, living an updated version of House of Mirth in 1990s Newport Beach, wishing fervently for a rich man to come along and rescue you? I did, after being pulled—sometimes against my will—into the compelling debut novel This Vacant Paradise by California author Victoria Patterson.
Patterson’s previous short story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the Story Prize and the Commonwealth Club Award; the stories lured readers into a seedier side of affluent Newport Beach—replete with sad waitresses, husbands urinating in their wives’ rosebushes, and a shaman-like skateboarder who sweetly turns tricks. Her debut novel burrows more deeply into the psyche of a patron of the Shark Island, a restaurant that also appears in Drift.
Esther Eileen Wilson is 33, blonde (of course), and stunning, though uneducated and saddled with credit card debt and a dead-end job. She works at a store that caters to women far richer than herself, likes apple martinis, and has a crush on community college adjunct professor Charlie, who isn’t rich enough to provide her with the security she needs. And she’s prone to self-sabotage. Early in the novel, on the verge of an engagement to a wealthy but unattractive suitor, she goes to dinner with him, excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and just doesn’t return.
Esther would perhaps come across as a cringe-inducing bimbo, the kind of woman whose obsession with men, tight clothes, and status you snicker at from across a bar, but Patterson’s lucid prose has the effect of making Esther’s halting self-absorption seem fiercely justified and strangely beautiful. Confronted at a party by Nora, a rival for Charlie’s affections, Esther tries:
to remember what Charlie had said: that she must be kind to Nora; that Nora was special; that Nora had overcome her environment. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. She had the urge to wipe the lipstick from Nora’s lips and apply a more appealing color.
A few pages later, Charlie denies that Nora might be in love with him, but Esther “understood that Charlie knew nothing about some things, even if he’d read ten thousand books.”
As the book progresses, Esther’s precarious financial situation creates increasing internal conflict and anxiety. But rather than doubling up on the apple martinis, which is what most bimbos might do, she begins to expose, almost in spite of herself, a hidden compassion and a self-conscious desire for knowledge. She reads books that she finds in a lover’s apartment. She makes trips to visit her heroin-addicted brother, perpetually zonked out and sleeping in a bus shelter, slipping him money she can’t afford to give. When she comes upon the dead body of her grandmother’s mean cat, she surprises herself by shedding tears at its death, and even says a rudimentary prayer: “I’m sorry. You were a good cat. You just wanted to be loved. You were scary.”
Part of Esther’s charm is her time and place, which Patterson uses to unsettling effect. The O. J. Simpson trial is occurring in the background, on the television set of Shark Island, and its implications of class conflict and racial tension are left for the reader to infer. Esther is still obviously hot, but she’s beginning to find lines around her mouth. She lives in the ’90s, which is unfortunate since, these days, she would surely find a suitable husband through online dating. The novel’s setting provides dramatic tension, sure, but it also supplies Esther herself; Esther couldn’t have existed in this form in any other era.
If This Vacant Paradise owes a debt to House of Mirth, it’s merely a cosmetic one. Esther doesn’t seem as blithely arrogant as Lily Bart, and the only crimes she commits seem to be against herself. Mostly. Also, when scandal arises, the fallout seems pretty much contained to Shark Island. Patterson herself is a more nakedly literary writer than Edith Wharton; most of the plot takes place in her characters’ shimmering, shifting thoughts, moods, and motivations. It remains to be seen whether her next book will continue the same Whartonesque themes of class and the chafing against it. With This Vacant Paradise, it’s clear Patterson is writing in top form about a topic that fascinates her. In Esther Wilson, this author has created a portrait of an unforgettable character staring down a fork in a fancy road.