Right Back Where We Started From by Joy Lanzendorfer is a sweeping and complex multi-generational story set against the backdrop of an evolving America from the mid-19th century to WWII. In a way, it’s also a love letter to the state of California and all the multitudes contained therein: the glamorous mystique of Hollywood, the blending social and cultural strata of late 19th/early 20th century San Francisco, and the rural orchards and farm land of the north.
This family saga follows Vira, who journeys from Maine to California in a covered wagon with her husband, pursuing his dreams of hitting it rich in the Gold Rush. Their daughter, Mabel, will stop at nothing to obtain the wealth and status she believes she is owed (much like her father, Elmer.) In my opinion, the heart of the story is Sandra Sanborn aka Emma Jones, Mabel’s daughter.
Sandra carries within her that drive and entitlement passed from her grandfather Elmer to her mother Mabel and finally to her. It is this ambition and confidence that propels her to find success and stardom in Hollywood circa 1932 during the Depression. I loved the Golden Age of Hollywood section toward the beginning of the novel the most, as the descriptions, style, and tone really put me in that mindset. Despite being an 18th century enthusiast, I also do really enjoy that 1930s Hollywood aesthetic. Sandra, so much like her mother she would never admit it, employs every trick and lie in the book in order to secure auditions and rub shoulders with Hollywood elite hoping to be discovered. It is here that she meets German immigrant, cowboy wannabe, and photographer Frederick, who makes a surprising return to her life years later in San Francisco. Although she leads a colorful life, or what people believe to be a colorful life, Sandra is never actually a particularly likeable character because of that strong streak of entitlement that runs in her family, which causes her to use people and pursure a shallow lifestyle (as did her mother.)
Having been a rebellious teen, Mabel strikes it out on her own quite young at the risk of abandonment by her family. While she chafed against her mother Vira’s strict rules, Mabel later comes to understand the importance of the status, security, and wealth her mother always preached about. In this, Mabel desperately tries to climb the social later of rural northern California, puffing herself and her older husband’s prune orchard up as a mighty business empire. But that facade, illustrated so well by the home she remodels as an elegant painted lady, soon comes crashing down. Mabel incurs debt (in her husband’s name) to maintain an image of wealth and prestige, which Sandra does as well for her wealthy socialite “friends” in San Francisco. Because Sandra and Mabel are so alike, I didn’t find Mabel to be particularly likable either. While they are both women of their time in looking to men for financial support, their fierce drive never pushes them the full way of trying to find independence in self-sufficiency.
The only likable character of this family line seems to be Vira, mother of Mabel and grandmother of Sandra. Expecting a simple life in Maine, Vira is quite literally swept off her feet by Elmer. They quickly marry and although she wholly resists following him out to California for the Gold Rush, she eventually relents while carrying that burden of unhappiness and regret within her. The dangers they encounter on the trail instill within Mabel a fear and anxiety she might not have otherwise had if she’d stayed in Maine. While Vira tries to maintain her identity and self (her piano, for one,) she never seemed as entitled and vapid as her progeny. In truth, it seems Mabel and Sandra inherited that trait from Elmer, who forced Vira to live in near poverty for five years and he tried and failed to find gold.
Right Back Where We Started From is not told in a linear fashion, but rather switches time periods from mid-19th century, to early 20th, and then the 1930s and 40s. This structure keeps you guessing as to how the geneartional saga enfolds as the secrets hidden by history are slowly revealed. We see all sides of these stories via the three generations of women, as well as their lack of sight in recognizing their similarities despite their tenuous mother-daughter relationships. As the title states, these characters can’t seem to escape who they truly are.
Joy Lanzendorfer’s debut is a cinematic treat. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book gets developed into a mini series at some point!
Right Back Where We Started From will be released on May 4, 2021.