I must confess: I became totally engrossed in Patterson’s bittersweet foray into the sexual politics of the Newport Beach chattering classes, not one person excused in this vast profusion of entitlement and self-involvement. Almost all of the author's beautifully drawn characters are either narcissistic or arrogant, all totally self-obsessed and self-absorbed in a world that cherishes materialism, excess, and financial accomplishment over human kindness.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of the novel’s central character, Esther Wilson who, when we first meet her, is simultaneously drenched with lust, money worries, and the confusion of not quite knowing what she wants. In a landscape where “wealth maintains its wealth at all costs,” a community is inclined to steer clear of anything out of the norm. Esther - concerned about her mounting credit card debt - is forced to move into the one-of-a-kind three-story home of her officious and cruel Grandmother Eileen.
A racist, homophobic, conservative bigot who holds fast to her religion and expects her family to do so as well, Grandmother Eileen is now in her eighties but has enough energy to hold court over her family, who lurk like vultures hoping to snap up the remnants of her vast estate. As she becomes increasingly dismissive and belligerent, she faces death, constantly watched over by her caregiver Rick, the only truly sympathetic and compassionate person in the entire novel.
Esther is growing ever more desperate. She's trying to subsidize her lifestyle by working at a high-end women's clothing boutique, but lurking like a great shadow behind her emotions is the promise and probability of a Christmas check in the amount of ten thousand dollars from Grandmother Eileen. At thirty-three, Esther is well acquainted with the rules of attraction and commerce. Although she’s tempted to marry Paul Rice (a rather idiotic man
possessing the advantage of a stunning inheritance), her unexpected affair with handsome liberal college lecturer Charlie Murphy thrusts Esther into a maelstrom of confused desire.
Charlie draws Esther in, making her lose track of her priorities. Esther - to her peril - realizes that she can’t marry Paul after a luncheon with his parents goes terribly wrong. Feeling as though she's leading a “provisional life,” Esther is most connected to the memories of her gay father, abruptly disowned by Eileen when he fell sick with AIDS. Her younger brother, Eric, continues to play a role, but
he's become a junkie, resorted to eking out a living on the streets of Newport. Esther still feels connected to Eric;
even with all her debt, she feels a responsibly to help, readily giving her brother money whenever and wherever she can.
The further Patterson’s story develops, the more it grows dark and oddly passionate. Foreboding clouds merge into a uniform dull gray sky
as once-guarded Esther scrambles for an “intricacy of meaning." Charlie’s heart hammers, his desire for Esther tingling even when he finds himself weighed down by the narrow expectations of his family. Like a dark shadow, a terrible pall of futility and confusion moves across both Esther and Charlie's paths. While Esther rejoices over her physical and spiritual communion with Charlie, her contentment proves transitory. Overshadowed by her financial situation and fearing her final confrontation with Eileen, the very real possibility of a future of servitude sends this selfish and rather immature woman into "a dreamlike, deadening euphoria.”
Hate rises, spinning out of control, and Esther must decide whether to abandon herself to a love that may never make her rich or give her the security that she expects and desires. Patterson's unusual ode to mediocrity unfolds in a delicate, graceful arc, exploring with great tenacity one woman's broken, tortured existence, where a surfeit of false values and a superficial abundance of wealth can do little to bring her happiness or contentment.