Jessica Raya published her first novel, The Buenos Aires Broken Hearts Club, in 2007 under the pseudonym Jessica Morrison. Ten years later, she returns with her own name and a new book – a politically charged coming-of-age story set in 1970s California.
Our narrator is Robin Fisher, an intelligent if somewhat cynical teenager who often finds herself on the wrong side of amenable when it comes to her friends. Robin lives in the town of Golden, “where just about everything [has] a store-bought glow.” When her insurance salesman father abandons the family in the middle of Robin’s first year of high school, the girl is left to deal with her grief-stricken, Canadian-born mother, alongside the more typical teenage hazards of hormones, bullies, and gossip.
As if this weren’t enough for an adolescent female to handle, into Robin’s life comes Carol Closter, a devout Christian newly arrived from Montana, “who said grace over her tater tots and dropped scripture in class like she was quoting Shakespeare.” Robin and Carol form an unlikely friendship, based partly on empathy and partly on their shared status as outsiders. “Until I met her,” Robin says, “I hadn’t known it was possible to pity and admire someone at the same time.” After Robin accidentally burns down an abandoned party house, the pair come to be known alternately as “Fire and Brimstone” and “Pyro Slut and Jesus Freak.”
The girls’ friendship may prove a point of frustration for readers, since Robin’s passivity allows Carol to talk her into precarious situations. For example, when Carol decides it is her “destiny” to begin protesting outside the town’s abortion clinic, Robin agrees to tag along, not because she shares Carol’s pro-life stance, but simply because she’s “trying to be a good friend.” Furthermore, despite her charisma, Carol is the worst kind of Christian hypocrite. She spews just as much hatred as she receives toward the classmates who mock her. “I hope they’re making magical memories that they can look back on fondly when they’re burning in the fiery pits of hell,” she says while observing the general student body from a classroom window. The novel’s dramatic climax may change the minds of some readers on this point, but perhaps not all.
One of the book’s bright spots is Robin’s relationship with her mother. Elaine Fisher’s journey from abandoned housewife to reluctant working woman to politically engaged single parent is poignant and realistically depicted. Even better, her character arc plays itself out over the course of a novel that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Though Robin struggles with some boy-related issues, they are far from the focal point of her character’s development. “Is this about a boy?” Elaine asks Robin during a serious mother-daughter talk. “There’s no boy,” Robin responds. “Why does it always have to be a boy?”