Book Review: Santa Monica by Cassidy Lucas

Santa Monica is Cassidy Lucas' debut novel about dark secrets brought to life after the mysterious death of a trainer to the elite women in Santa Monica.

With all the twisty verve of Liane Moriarty, crossed with the more acerbic political observations of Tom Perotta, comes the debut novel of Cassidy Lucas, the pen name of writing duo Julia Fierro and Caeli Wolfson Widger. Both real-life residents of their titular town, they bring sharp eyes and large hearts to this tale of three women struggling to survive in Santa Monica, and the one man who ties them all together.

This man, Zack Doheny, is dead from the very first pages of the book. His half-sister Lettie finds him after hours on the floor of the gym where they both work, him as a star trainer and herself as a cleaner paid below the table due to her lack of immigration papers. Lettie is a single mom to Andres, a disabled boy who adores his Tio Zack, though Zack usually goes to great pains to obscure his relationship with them. While his familial feelings for Lettie and Andres are strong, he’d rather not advertise their relationship in image-conscious Santa Monica, especially since his livelihood depends on appearing to be a hot Southern boy aspiring to make it in Hollywood. Our authors absolutely and rightfully skewer him for this:

[Lettie] swallowed a giggle—her brother loved to make jokes. Even out in public. A risk, Lettie knew, no brown-skinned man would take these days. But Zacarias lived as a white man, free from fear. Lettie was an illegal full-blooded Mexican; Zacarias a handsome mestizo, an American citizen thanks to his rich Floridian papa. They were both bastards but Zacarias wore the ultimate disguise, that of a white man with a perfect California tan. All the doors, and borders, opened for him.

But Zack is not without his own problems. A series of misfortunes has Lettie mired in debt and in constant fear of ICE coming to take her away from her beloved son. In order to help out—as at least part of Lettie’s problems are due to his own negligence—he agrees when one of the women he trains asks for his help in undertaking a little light embezzlement from the Color Theory gym where he works.

Regina Wolfe is a Type-A personality whose marketing business has somehow started bleeding debt. Having encouraged her TV writer husband to quit his job and work on his passion project script while they were flush with cash months earlier, she now finds herself desperate to make ends meet. Double billing Color Theory seems like the perfect solution, especially with the help of the inside man she’s developed a huge crush on.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn transplant Mel Goldberg is feeling down on herself for not being one of the svelte, breezy California moms she’s surrounded by. Worse, her husband Adam has taken to Santa Monica like a fish to water, embracing physical fitness and a restrictive diet, along with an annoyingly patronizing manner that has Mel constantly second-guessing both herself and her marriage:

Where had her Adam gone—the same version who had practically worshipped Mel for almost two decades? A measly eighteen months in the California sunshine couldn’t change that. Could it? Surely, beneath his newly chiseled muscles and condescending suggestions, he was still the sensitive, creative, evolved man she’d fallen in love with?

 

Wasn’t he?

When the paths of all four collide, they set into motion a tale of love, lust, and violence—but who, ultimately, will be the one responsible for killing Zac Doheny?

Our authors do a terrific, often humorous job of exploring the psyches of the residents of Santa Monica, creating believable, flawed protagonists doing their best to sustain body and soul while maintaining appearances in an area obsessed with looking flawless. While I did think there could have been a little more positive LGBTQIA representation, the novel otherwise does a good job of exploring the hot button issues of race and class that most affect Southern California today. I personally found Mel’s narrative the most satisfying, despite her probably being the person I’d like to hang out with the least: a testament to the authors’ ability to evoke empathy for all their main characters, no matter how problematic or awful they can sometimes be.

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