Back in the day – when I was growing up – I spent a lot of time at amusement and theme parks. I grew up in San Diego, CA. Not a year went by when I wasn’t at Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and/or Knott’s Berry Farm at least once. There was always something – a class field trip, Senior Night, a visiting relative, simply the want for getting away for a weekend. They were close by; they were convenient.
I was that kid that annoyed my friends, but thrilled my parents. I liked the shows and the “theme” rides, particularly at Disneyland – Country Bear Jamboree; America, the Beautiful; Journey Into Innerspace; It’s a Small World (really) – they were awesome. I still love that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those thrill rides, too. The Corkscrew at Knott’s Berry Farm was a favorite, as were the ones at Disneyland. But my favorite of all of them was the Colossus at Magic Mountain. Oh, what an awesome roller coaster! It’s a wooden, double-track roller coaster…and it’s huge! The best thing about it for me – the cars on one of the tracks were turned around so that we could ride backwards! Holy Crap, that was fantastic! And the line for that was never long. So we could just ride and ride and ride.
That is precisely how I feel about Karin Kallmaker’s novel Roller Coaster (Bella Books) – it’s a book that I can just read and read and read. It’s very likely that I will reread this one many times. (This will be the 3rd of Kallmaker’s books that have made my “comfort read” list. The others are One Degree of Separation and Just Like That.)
The first meeting between Laura Izmani and Helen Baynor happened in rather unusual circumstances – in the front car of the largest wooden roller coaster on the west coast. Each had a specific purpose for taking that ride. What a ride it turned out to be – life altering, to say the least.
More than two decades later, they meet again. This time, Laura is interviewing to be the private chef for Helen’s family. Laura is very aware of who she’s interviewing with – she hasn’t forgotten Helen over the years. Helen, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to remember that fateful day at the amusement park. Much to Laura’s relief.
As Laura and Helen’s “employee/employer” relationship turns to friendship, they find themselves on a completely different kind of roller coaster ride.
What can I say about Roller Coaster that hasn’t already been said – or that I imagine has been said. (I don’t read reviews of books I haven’t already read, unless it’s an author with whom I am completely unfamiliar.) So, I imagine that others have said very nice things. I’d like to say some very nice things, as well.
As I have blogged in the past, I can always count on Kallmaker to put out a well-written novel. The same is true here. The thing that I really appreciate about Kallmaker’s writing is that it makes me think. Really think. I love that my vocabulary is challenged just enough to keep it interesting, but not so much that I feel less-than-intelligent. I love that I’ll stop reading just to go back and reread the sentence or paragraph I just finished because there was something in it that spoke to me. I love that Kallmaker will have some small hook or theme that she’ll come back to periodically – it doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot or the romance. It’s just a little device that makes her writing uniquely hers.
Another part of Kallmaker’s writing that just enthralls me with each novel is her knack for description. The sights, sounds, and smells are so wonderfully described. It’s like watching a movie – the location of every scene is vivid and colorful. If any of the culinary delights Kallmaker describes throughout the novel were to appear on a menu, I would already know what it smells and tastes like. Delightful!
Once again, I’ve been exposed to some really wonderful secondary characters. Helen’s children – Justin and Julie – are intelligent and witty. Kallmaker has written them well. They’re typical siblings who bicker and tease and argue. But, when push comes to shove, they totally have each others’ backs. Though twins, they each have a very unique voice – something that many people forget about twins is that they’re actually two, separate people. Kallmaker doesn’t forget this. Other supporting characters are also clearly defined and fully three-dimensional. Even the characters who aren’t around that much stand out and make their presence known.
Contrary to what we might expect from the title, the romantic relationship is slow going in Roller Coaster. With Helen spending most of her time in New York and Laura staying in California, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t be around each other much. Thus, that separation makes it a bit more difficult to form a romantic relationship. Throw into it that Helen is presumably straight and romance seems unlikely. For Laura, the attraction is easier – she’s a lesbian attracted to another woman. Yup, that’s how it’s supposed to happen. It’s not as easy though since Helen is straight. Hm, unspoken rule: don’t fall for straight women.
Helen’s attraction to Laura is significantly more subtle and, at first, completely devoid of anything physical or sexual. As a private woman who is very protective of her children, Helen’s attraction manifests itself in a feeling of security. Her children are safe with Laura. She is safe with Laura. She trusts Laura. Without realizing it, she’s started considering Laura a member of the family. An integral member of the family, at that.
It’s Helen’s coming out that gives me the slightest bit of pause, however. I thought it was a little too easy. Now, this is not to say that I think the only kind of coming out is one that is fraught with pain and struggle. No. However, I missed the build up. Helen had a happy relationship with her late husband. She loved him. After his sudden death, she became committed to her children and her career. But, after one really good bit of flirting by an attractive woman, Helen couldn’t get the thought of being intimate with another woman out of her head. Within days of this revelation, she experienced that intimacy – with no emotional or psychological repercussions. Again, this is not to say that I think Helen needed to lock herself away and suddenly doubt herself. But, after 50 years of living a straight life, I wanted to see a bit more self-examination. Surely there was a twinge of attraction at some point in her life, right? A co-star in one of her plays, perhaps?
Trust me, the romance and the story were not ruined for me. Far from it. As I said, this is one for the reread pile. Actually, it’s one for the “reread many times” pile. I just wanted to see a little more inner-reflection on Helen’s part.
Ultimately, this one is definitely a keeper. So pull buckle your seat belt, pull down the safety bar, and throw your hands in the air. But be sure to keep your eyes open – this is one ride you do not want to miss.