California Dreamin: The Best Books Based on the Left Coast

Early on in my love affair with reading, I stumbled upon Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal work, Less Than Zero. I devoured it in a matter of days, equal parts fascinated and terrified by the fast-paced, drug-fueled Los Angeles lifestyle. However, as a native New Yorker, it wasn’t the casual drug use and mammoth trust funds that impressed me, but rather the backdrop. I have always been fascinated by the landscape and lifestyle in California, finding books set in the state compulsively readable, whether star-studded beach reads or depressing Gold Rush-era tales. Below is a roundup of my favorites, from breezy beach reads to heavy hitters. In no particular order, here are my gold medal books from the Golden State:

1. Driftwood, Elizabeth Dutton

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“You’re like driftwood, my baby girl. All that tumbling around in the world makes you feel lost, but it’s just polishing you up”

When Clem Jasper’s rock star father dies suddenly, he leaves her siblings portions of his fortune – and nothing a but a stack of letters for Clem, an unemployed rich girl plagued with perpetual ennui. Clem’s father will stop at nothing in his quest to help her find herself – even if its posthumously – and he sends her on a journey down the California coast to meet people in his life and reveal aspects of his childhood that he never had the courage to do while he was alive. The book is a quick, inspiring, and surprisingly beautiful read, replete with pearls of wisdom throughout the letters applicable to anyone who might be struggling to figure out who they are, despite having all the tools to do so.

2. Oh! You Pretty Things, Shanna Mahim 

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Books set in star-studded Los Angeles are a dime a dozen, but this one is refreshing because it doesn’t involve a young and naïve girl becoming a runaway celebrity, falling in love with her hunky male co-star, and settling into the Hollywood Hills home of her dreams. Instead, it is a real (I can’t say this from experience, but Mahin is third-generation Hollywood, so I trust her) and raw tale of what its actually like dealing with celebrity antics on a daily basis (hint: not ideal). The protagonist is impossible not to like – or pity, once we are introduced to her mother, who treads a thin line between wacky and absolutely insane. Jess is working in a dead-end coffee shop job when a co-worker offers her the opportunity to fill the vacant position at his old job – working for an Oscar-winning composer. She uses this job as a stepping stone towards greater celebrity, and ultimately earns a gig working as a chef (her ultimate passion) and personal assistant for a B+ list soap opera actress, Eva Carlson. Regardless of whether or not you work for a celebrity (if you’re reading my lowly WordPress account, let’s be honest, you almost definitely don’t), you’ll be able to relate to Jess’ struggles balancing her career with her personal life – though hopefully you’ll find it difficult to relate to her experiences with her mother. This page turner is perfect for the beach, but its certainly more impressive than your run-of-the-mill beach read. Prepare to consume it in an afternoon and then aggressively google Mahin in search of other works by the author. Yes, she’s that good.

3. The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan 

From Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan comes her first novel, The Invisible Circus, a story about a teenager named Phoebe desperate to discover more about the life of her recently decrease, free-loving sister Faith. Set in 1978 San Francisco, Egan beautifully invokes the 1970 summer of Faith’s death through the eyes of a sister who idolizes her. This one’s certainly a little bit weightier than those above, but a must-read California coming of age tale that approaches carefree living and drug use on the opposite end of Easton Ellis’ spectrum.

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