The story of three sisters who are dumped by their boyfriends/husbands in the same week, California Girls is Susan Mallery at her most interesting – but the novel also suffers from flaws which make it difficult for me to rate it more highly.
Finola Corrado, Ali Schmitt and Zennie Schmitt couldn’t be more different in spite of the DNA they share, but a common bond of love keeps them unified, especially now that their parents have retired to the Caribbean.
Finola hosts a breezy local talk show and seems to have a perfect marriage and even better career. The only real problem with her life is that she has no time to be alone with her husband and thus no time to have the baby she wants. Or so she thinks, until she finds out moments before show-time that her husband Nigel, has been having an affair with the friend of a client, the jealous and ten years younger Treasure, a Taylor Swift-esque country pop star. Divorcing Nigel means that Finola has to deal with the paparazzi on her lawn and the stress of defending herself against onslaughts of blame, but the pain just might be worthwhile when she takes up yoga and self-improvement as part of a drive to learn to be more mellow.
Zennie is a scrub nurse who is a crunchy granola type, a happy, carefree surfer girl who considers the loss of her boyfriend Clark no big tragedy. A singleton who doesn’t believe that pairing off with anyone will improve her life, she’d rather be out in the ocean anyway, honing her body and being at one with nature. When she’s asked to be a surrogate for her best friend Bernie and her husband, Zennie agrees without thinking. She doesn’t realize the demands the pregnancy will put on her health and social life, or how it will change the way she sees the universe, her friendships – and how it will start making Clark seem a lot more attractive.
Ali had been planning the perfect wedding to her fiancé, Glen Demiter, but he’s so much of a coward he sends his edgier, tattooed, moto-crossing brother Daniel to cancel the ceremony and break the engagement two months before the wedding. Ali is devastated, but Daniel soon becomes a handy and helpful assistant in canceling her wedding plans, and keeps popping up to smooth over her heartbreak and take care of her with comfort and attention – which she needs when workplace sexism means she gets passed over for a promotion. When she moves in with Daniel for convenience’s sake, she starts wondering if she was engaged to the wrong brother the whole time.
All three women unite in their childhood home to prepare it for sale and for the estate sale that will happen beforehand. The weekends they spend going over the brimming closets and stuffed attic reveal old wounds –Finola is a half-sister, the result of her mother’s perfect and tragic first marriage, and Zennie is her father’s favorite, which leaves Ali feeling unloved.
Finola’s agony over the end of her marriage is vividly portrayed and truly gut-wrenching. Anyone who’s been through a divorce – even a divorce more mild than hers – will recognize the pain and revenge in every little bit of her arc. Her narrative is about learning to accept responsibility for checking out of her marriage first and to be more open and less harsh, and maybe this part of her arc works, but ‘You didn’t pay enough attention to me so I had an affair!’ is not a reasonable statement (on the part of her husband) no matter how hard the novel tries to sell it.
Zennie, meanwhile, has to learn that her shallow life has dumped people who don’t care about her into her life, and to put a little substance in her actions (and apparently enjoy fast food again) but that ultimately means settling for the unexciting Clark.
The most romantic storyline is given to Ali, who must learn to accept the immediacy of Daniel’s affection (and the intensity of his affection was so sudden that I honestly thought that he was going to be revealed to have ulterior motives) while standing up for herself at work and accepting her body. She could’ve had a whole story to herself and I would’ve followed it.
The book’s biggest problem is the parents, whose behavior is remedied by the middle of the book but not before they annoy and try the reader’s patience. Their mother, Mary Jo, is more of a stereotype than a full-blooded character, with her continual harping upon wanting grandchildren; a mantra she repeats two seconds after Finola tells her that her husband has abandoned their marriage to go skiing with his pop star paramour. Her toxic favoritism of Finola is a riding theme in the novel, which works best when it focuses on the way Zennie and Ali react to Mary Jo’s behavior rather than on that behaviour. She reacts to Zennie’s surrogacy by presuming she’s a lesbian (though that does lead to the entry of Cassie, a real estate agent, into the narrative, and Cassie is great). Bill, the girls’ father, overshares about how bad their marriage is and blames Finola’s marriage falling apart on her being a workaholic (it’s almost as if communication could solve a problem like that! What a revolutionary concept!), and the way he rejects Zennie when she gets pregnant is nonsensical. Mary Jo and Bill are 100 percent the reason why this isn’t an A-grade read, though at least Mary Jo rounds out by the end of the novel.
California Girls has some really well observed character moments and some interesting things to say, but it’s not quite perfect and just manages to eke out a recommendation.