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California Golden by Melanie Benjamin


Publisher: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Delacorte Press

Date of publication: August 8th, 2023

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Adult, Adult Fiction, Family

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | WorldCat

Goodreads Synopsis:

Two sisters navigate the turbulent, euphoric early days of California surf culture in this dazzling saga of ambition, sacrifice, and longing for a family they never had, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife

Southern California, 1960s: endless sunny days surfing in Malibu, followed by glittering neon nights at Whisky A-Go-Go. In an era when women are expected to be housewives, Carol Donelly is breaking the mold as a legendary female surfer struggling to compete in a male-dominated sport–and her daughters, Mindy and Ginger, bear the weight of her unconventional lifestyle.

The Donnelly sisters grow up enduring their mother’s absence–physically, when she’s at the beach, and emotionally, the rare times she’s at home. To escape questions about Carol’s whereabouts–and chase their mom’s elusive affection–they cut school to spend their days in the surf. From her first time on a board, Mindy shows a natural talent, but Ginger, two years younger, feels out of place in the water.

As they grow up and their lives diverge, Mindy and Ginger’s relationship ebbs and flows. Mindy finds herself swept up in celebrity, complete with beachside love affairs, parties at the Playboy Club, and USO tours to Vietnam. Meanwhile, Ginger–desperate for a community of her own–is tugged into the vibrant counterculture of drugs and cults. Through it all, their sense of duty to each other survives, as the girls are forever connected by the emotional damage they carry from their unorthodox childhood.

A gripping, emotional story set at a time when mothers were expected to be Donna Reed, not Gidget, California Golden is an unforgettable novel about three women living in a society that was shifting as tempestuously as the breaking waves.

First Line:

The surf giveth, and the surf taketh away-thus said the Surf God every morning, noon, and night.

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin

Growing up the daughters of one of the only female surfing legends was hard. Mindy and Ginger learned, at a young age, that their mother’s attention was solely on surfing and the beach. To get their mother’s attention, the girls learn to surf. By the mid-1960s, the girls have grown apart. Mindy has become a legend in the surfing circles.. She gets caught up in the celebrity lifestyle and is soon doing a USO tour in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Ginger has become embroiled in the drug and cult counterculture. Their relationship is put to the test when Ginger commits the ultimate betrayal and asks Mindy for help. Can Mindy and Ginger overcome the emotional damage they both carry to do the right thing?

California Golden is one of those books you will love or hate. For me, I was on the love-it side of the scale. I enjoyed reading about Mindy and Ginger’s unconventional childhood and how their lives drastically changed as teenagers. I also enjoyed reading about the surfing/drug and cult subcultures portrayed in the book.

Usually, I’m not too fond of time hopping or switching back and forth between main characters in books. Nine out of ten times, I need help figuring out who I am reading about (usually because the author doesn’t label the beginning of the chapter). But, in California Golden, I had no such issue. Each chapter was tagged Mindy, Ginger, or Carol. It also had the year that particular chapter was set in (the book spans from 1944 to 1980).

I am also not a massive fan of having three separate main characters for the reasons stated above. I also have them run together in my mind. But, in this book, that didn’t happen. The author created three distinct personalities and kept them separate throughout the book.

I liked Mindy, and I also felt terrible for her. She had so much responsibility put on her at a young age. She also knew, as all children do, that she and her sister were unwanted, and she devised a way to get and keep her mother’s attention: surfing. Mindy genuinely loved surfing, and it shone through in the beginning chapters. So I was surprised when her storyline went in the direction it did. The focus would have stayed on her surfing.

While I liked Ginger, I predicted how her storyline would go. Unfortunately, that is the path of many children who had childhoods like hers. It did get to a point where I didn’t even like to read her storyline. But, at the same time, I liked the look the author gave into the drug/cult subculture of the late 60s. It was frightening and fascinating at the same time. It also drove Ginger to do what she did with Jimmy and what she asked Mindy to do later.

I didn’t like Carol, but at the same time, I felt terrible for her. She never wanted to be a wife and a mother. But she was forced to be anyways. She had no feelings for her girls and neglected them. When her husband finally left, and she discovered the girls were still there, her first thought was, “Why didn’t he take them.” She was selfish and remained selfish until the end of the book.

The end of California Golden was a surprise. I liked how things came full circle for Mindy, Ginger, and Carol. But I disagreed with the very end of the book. Was it good that Ginger had gotten her life together and figured things out? I didn’t think so, which might not be the correct opinion because of what was at stake. I wish there were an epilogue showing what life was like ten years later. I would have loved to see where everyone ended up.

I would recommend California Golden to anyone over 21. There are language, violence, and sexual situations. I also want to warn you that there are scenes of neglect, drug use, and domestic violence.

Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Delacorte Press, NetGalley, and Melanie Benjamin for allowing me to read and review California Golden. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

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