Flashback Friday: Golden Days by Carolyn See

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Golden Days by Carolyn See

(published 1986)

I discovered this odd gem only a few years ago, and felt equal parts befuddled and entranced by Golden Days. This novel paints a portrait of a particular time in California, specifically 1980s LA, and then veers off into an apocalyptic final section that is both moving, shocking, and hopeful, in a very odd way.

From Publishers Weekly:

See, who is the author of three previous, rather quiet, sensitive novels, a partner in the authorship of blockbuster pop sagas (Lotus Land, 110 Shanghai Road and an admired Los Angeles Times book reviewer, has found an entirely new voice for her most current novel, a breakout if ever there was one. Her publisher mentions Joan Didion, Anne Tyler and Nora Ephron, but none quite evokes the wry yet deeply felt and devastatingly feminine tone she has caught in Golden Days, rather as if John Cheever had changed gender and moved to California. There is Cheever’s intense sense of place (Los Angeles instead of exurban Connecticut), of the passage of time and of the enormities that gape just below the surface of life in this tale of a breezy middle-aged woman coming to terms with life, men and, ultimately, nuclear war. Some of the material sounds familiar: marriage in the early 1960s to dreadfully wrong men, the depth and power of female friendship over the years, the California self-realization movement (for once, not satirized but quirkily affirmed) and, finally, the darkening into the 1980s and the coping with unimaginable nuclear horrors. But it has all been felt and thought afresh, and with startling sudden insights on nearly every page: on the way childhood memories linger, why men make war, how favorite restaurants somehow attain symbolic stature. A chapter that inhabits the mind of a philandering husband is uncanny in its accuracy and sadness. And the closing pages offer a vision of nuclear apotheosis and human survival utterly unlike anything in contemporary literature. Golden Days offers the excitement of discovering what seems like a brand-new talent, but enriched by a sureness of tragicomic touch that could only be the work of an experienced writer striking into bold new territory.

I struggled early on with this book, as the depiction of Los Angeles life felt so foreign to me, particularly with the main character’s side journey into self-improvement seminars and her odd devotion to the charismatic leader she encounters. At the same time, the author depicts the busy clamor of LA with an overarching sense of impending doom, as characters refer to the threat of war in a way that becomes more and more real, albeit unseen, as the novel progresses. And then, oddly, the final portion of the book deals with the same characters after the bombs drop — and it’s this part that has stuck in my mind ever since. I don’t quite buy the science of how the author depicts survival in a post-nuclear world, but the imagery is startling and, in this context, persuasive.

Golden Days is weird and definitely tried my patience at times, and yet it is a shocking and original depiction of an imagined nuclear holocaust and its aftermath. The powerful ending, with its strangely optimistic tone, would make great fodder for a book group discussion. Overall, I’d say give this book a try and see if it works for you.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

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