Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: "Golden State" by Stephanie Kegan

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"I came from a long line of dreamers, of storytellers, and the most dangerous stories we told were about ourselves."

Natalie Askedahl appears to have the perfect suburban California life. Her husband Eric is a lawyer at a prestigious firm while she is a third-grade teacher at a private school she and her husband helped build, and they have two beautiful daughters—Julia, an immensely gifted 15-year-old, and Lilly, a precocious, curious, second grader. The youngest child in one of California's prominent political families, Natalie worshiped her older brother Bobby, a highly intelligent, sensitive soul, who had a tremendous amount of promise.

But after college and what appeared to be a promising academic career, Bobby dropped out of society, moving to a remote cabin in Idaho, living off the grid and refusing contact with his family, although he is more than willing to take the money they send him. While this type of withdrawal hurts Natalie and seems strange to her, the rest of her family has always taken it in stride, just accepting Bobby's eccentricities as mere foibles.

One day, a bomb explodes on the Stanford campus, while Julia is attending a debate tournament. While Julia isn't harmed, other people are killed and injured. Other bombings follow across the state, and the so-called bomber publishes a manifesto, ranting against technology and political corruption. After another bombing, Natalie becomes somewhat obsessed with the incidents, and suddenly discovers that the bomber's manifesto shares much of the same language with a few of Bobby's letters to their mother.

While she is sure that Bobby is in no way the bomber, she fears for her family. Her mother and sister ridicule her fears as outlandish, but Natalie must make a choice on what her next steps are, and how prepared she is for the ramifications of whatever she does. Does she ignore her fears, or run the risk of betraying her family and placing suspicion on her brother?

Stephanie Kegan's Golden State (not to be confused with Michelle Richmond's novel of the same name) has a bit of a Jodi Picoult-esque feel to it. It's well written and compelling, and raises some questions about the strength of blood and family, and what you would do if faced with Natalie's dilemma. It's also a book about the way our lives are shaped by the lies we tell and are told, the secrets we keep, and the things we don't say.

I read this book quite quickly, and think Kegan is a very talented storyteller. I didn't necessarily think any of the characters were particularly likeable, and at times I thought things got a little bit melodramatic (although who can say what would really happen in a situation like this), but Kegan kept me reading, kept me wanting to see how she'd resolve the plot. It's a tremendously thought-provoking read.

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