The year is probably too young to make this kind of pronouncement, but the new novel I know I'm going to be rereading in the coming months and spending a lot of time thinking about is Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides. It's a tough and exquisite sliver of a short novel whose world I want to remain lost in — and at the same time am relieved to have outgrown.
We Run the Tides is set in the mid-1980s in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco, which is perched, as its name suggests, on the very edge of the Pacific with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. In the next decade, that neighborhood will be out of reach for everyone but multi-multi-millionaires, but in the '80s some weathered funky old houses remain.
The 13-year-old girls at center of this story — a squad of four — are, like Sea Cliff, perched on the very edge, too: the edge of sexual activity, for sure, but also the recognition that some things they do or say now are for keeps and will change who they become as adults.
Our spectacular narrator and main character is named Eulabee. Her family, like Vendela Vida's own, is part Swedish. Eulabee's voice is as distinctive as her name: she's the kind of adolescent who reads Milan Kundera in her downtime and, yet, she's also a goof. Here's a passage early in the novel where Eulabee's soaring self-regard and dopiness collide:
We know the high school boy who lives next door to me. ... The boy is blond and often has a group of his high school friends over to watch football in his living room. From my garden I can see when they're watching a game. There's a three-foot gap between the edge of our property and his house and sometimes I leap through his open window and land on the floor of his living room. I am that daring. I am a daring enigma. I fantasize that one of them will invite me to the prom. And then one afternoon one of the boys grabs the waistband of my Guess? jeans. I try to get away, and I run in place for a moment like a cartoon character. The boys all laugh; I'm upset for days. I know that this gesture and their laughter mean they think of me as a little girl and not as a prospective prom date. After that their window is kept closed.
Eulabee speaks to us in present tense, which makes her voice, coming to us from the dim reaches of 1984, more poignant, because even as we're listening to her we know that yearning girl doesn't exist anymore, she's grown up. Eulabee's best friend and the Queen Bee of the friend quartet is named Maria Fabiola and in this novel about transformations of place and identity Maria Fabiola herself is in the midst of a rare change: She's maturing into a great beauty. Here's Eulabee recalling a morning when, as usual, she and Maria Fabiola stop at the house of another friend for the walk to school:
Julia's mom opens the door. . . . [A]nd smiles at me and then at Maria Fabiola. "I have an idea," she says, as Julia comes to the door. "Let's take a photo of you girls." She retrieves her camera and the three of us line up, Maria Fabiola is in the middle. Julia and I stare at each other as the shutter closes. We both know Maria Fabiola's recent transformation from ordinary to otherworldly beauty inspires everyone to want to capture it.
"You girls look great," Julia's mom says, not looking at me.
One other thing about Maria Fabiola: as her name suggests, she's a fabulist, a teller of elaborate lies. But some of the lies she generates will rupture the friend group, ostracizing Eulabee. Shortly afterwards, Maria Fabiola disappears, the victim of an apparent kidnapping.
There are so many moods and story currents running through this wonder of a novel, whose striking title comes from the fact that Eulabee and Maria Fabiola know how to read the tides, so that when "the ocean starts to inhale" they can scramble over the rocky promontory that juts out between China Beach and Baker Beach in Sea Cliff. Anyone who doesn't time that scramble just right risks being sucked out into the Pacific. Female adolescence in this novel feels like being sucked out to sea. It's overwhelming, absurd and dangerous and even the best adults can't help. Eulabee and her friends have to figure out how to swim back to shore all on their own.