November 2003

Iris Benaroia

fiction

Sunset Terrace by Rebecca Donner

The jacket cover of Rebecca Donner’s Sunset Terrace is a good indication of what to expect inside. Blazed across the front, the title has been etched in wet concrete, familiar craftsmanship to anyone who has ever seen pavement. The artist seems to have pressed about two inches into the wet concrete -- and that’s about as deep as this book gets. It’s not that Vancouver-born Donner is a bad writer, it’s that the characters just don’t dance, or sing, or cartwheel; they’re caricatures, rather than characters. They lack humanity and good dialogue. Good for Harlequin; bad for serious fiction. Perhaps my reaction to Sunset Terrace is so negative because it pales next another book I’d just finished, Alice Sebold’s, The Lovely Bones, whose visceral and gripping narrator is also a young girl, albeit a murdered girl of 14 who narrates her tale from heaven.

Donner’s protagonist Hannah is a five years younger than Susie Salmon, Sebold’s murdered girl, and, like Susie, Hannah faces hardship -- her father’s suicide; constant shuffling as her mother Elaine cooks her way in diners across the states leaving her and her baby sister Daisy in grungy motel rooms; and, of course, there’s Bridget, an evil girl from the bad side of the tracks abandoned as a tot in a supermarket parking lot, fond of expletives, running away and goading Daisy and Hannah.

We first meet Bridget at Sunset Terrace, the ironically named rent-controlled building in California where vagabond mom decides to finally plant her grease-licked shoes. Of course, Sunset Terrace isn’t sunny. It’s a bad place where mothers leave their children unattended, and neighbouring Mexicans run amok. There’s also a host of unforgettable disenfranchised characters (like Bridget’s stereotypical cigarette-hauling, wig-wearing stepmother); gentrification hulks in the environs, the landlord is cheap and Elaine, the good mother, tries to earn a decent living and be a good citizen, despite the world’s conspiracy against her. She even seeks her dead husband’s brother for cash that is rightfully hers. His response to the mousy, kind-hearted woman is so mean, it borders on absurd. Elaine leaves without receiving a cent and, come book’s end, the brother has a miraculous change of heart, inorganically incongruous with his earlier behaviour, and gives Elaine some cash.

Then there’s the business of titling the chapters. Despite the chapters’ brevity, each has been given an unimaginative title (i.e. “Gone,” when Bridget runs away; “Back,” when Bridget comes back, “Cheap Rent-Control Bastard,” about the landlord; “Sam,” when Elaine meets her boyfriend, Sam). Donner appears to be signalling us as to what’s central in the chapter. Really, is "Cheap Rent-Control Bastard" about the landlord? But the titles are strange, eerily reminiscent of storyboards for television -- and there’s nearly 50 of them.

The writing is clear but devoid of artistry, resurrecting a Harlequin I once read for kicks. In the following passage Elaine ruminates about Bridget’s past:

“Elaine decided she would steer clear of the molestation issue. The story was locked up in Bridget somewhere -- she knew it was. But Bridget didn’t want to talk about it now, and it would be cruel to force the story out of her.”

Indeed, when Bridget starts hanging out with Hannah, we know something bad is going to happen. But Elaine is impervious to Bridget’s manipulations. In fact, Bridget sleeps over quite a bit and Elaine indulges herself in reverie: “She was comforted by her daughter’s small warm body nuzzled against hers, by the sound of Hannah and Bridget giggling and whispering in the other room, and she allowed herself the fantasy that she had three daughters instead of two.”

The book jacket explains, “vicious, foul-mouthed nine-year old” Bridget “irrevocably alters the course of all of their lives,” but Bridget, as descending dark angel, doesn’t really do all that much stirring up. Sure, there’s Bridget’s “malicious game,” as the jacket cover promises, a game that Hannah takes part in. But without ruining the book, let me just say its resolution has the whiff of the bizarre about it. It comes out of nowhere and it goes nowhere. Elaine gets depressed for a spell and Hannah kills her pet turtle.

I did like Mrs. Grover, an older woman whose wit is on par with Dorothy Parker, lives at Sunset Terrace and has experienced loss too. She’s a secondary character, but her life is never truly explored. Strangely, Hannah as protagonist in this faux bildungsroman is perhaps the least developed character of the book. I simply couldn’t smell, imagine, believe her as a character. And her incessant longing for Bridget’s company doesn’t really go anywhere. But like all good romance-style books, Hannah grows up and leaves Sunset Terrace. Elaine gets the man. And Bridget just goes away like she’d never existed. Sort of like this book.

Sunset Terrace by Rebecca Donner
MacAdam/Cage Publishing
ISBN: 1931561346
311 Pages