With the waning days of summer upon us, this is an excellent time to venture poolside, or perhaps, visit your local beach. And the perfect companion for such activities is a light(ish) novel. I find romantic comedies often fit the bill. Therefore, if you are so inclined, may I recommend birds of california by Katie Cotugno.
The main character, Fiona St. James, is living a relatively quiet life in L.A. She works in her family’s print shop, which pays the bills but provides very little personal satisfaction. Added to that, are the various headaches that accompany customer service work. When Fiona’s not at the print shop, she spends part of her time with her teenage sister and their flamboyant neighbor, and the other part with an obscure community theater group in which she acts and directs. With the latter group, Fiona has assumed a pseudonym, which begs the question…why? The answer to that lies in Fiona’s past. A past she’s desperately trying to distance herself from. Since Fiona has worked hard to achieve this quiet life, the less recognition and attention she attracts, the better.
Nearly a decade prior, Fiona was a child actor. She starred in a popular TV show called Birds Of California, which garnered her immense fame. But as the show neared the end of its run, the wheels began to come off for Fiona. At the time, her self-destructive behavior was well documented by tabloid media. Fiona’s spectacular fall from grace fed the hungry viewing eyes of the public. But it left her severely damaged and even required a stint in a mental health facility. So, for Fiona, if it’s a choice between fame and fortune or hiding within the safety of the print shop, she’ll choose the print shop everytime.
But as we all know, with any novel, there must be conflict. Some disturbance in the normal flow of events. In this case, that disturbance is Sam Fox. Sam was one of Fiona’s co-stars on Birds Of California, and he’s been recruited to convince Fiona to sign on to star in a reboot of the show. Sam is desperate to get his acting career back on track. So the idea of a reboot is welcomed news. But he’s going to have his hands full trying to get Fiona on board. Sam is a man on a mission. Yet, missions can get complicated. Things don’t always go to plan. And when the relationship between the former co-stars begins to heat up, revelations, both unexpected and all too familiar, rise to the surface.
birds of california is not without its flaws. The fact that Fiona remains in the L.A. area despite it being the scene of so much of her heartbreak, created some head-scratching moments for me. Another point of frustration was the ending. There were so many loose ends. Cotugno made sure to resolve the romantic conflicts, but there were several interesting subplots involving mental illness and parental abandonment, that I would’ve appreciated further exploration of. However, the reader is provided with a fairly fleshed out portrait of the Hollywood industry and workplace gender politics, where women have very little agency, and those who are most vulnerable often succumb to the will of powerful men, or risk their professional reputations. What immediately struck me about this story is how frequently Fiona says “no” to men, in various ways, for various reasons. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. But that initial “no” is rarely accepted or taken seriously. This idea that we as women don’t know what we really want, that we don’t mean what we say, that somehow we can be forced into compliance, is one of the more disturbing aspects of society. birds of california is primarily a rom-com, but I appreciated that Cotugno makes a point of unmasking these destructive beliefs, and spotlighting their prevalence.
In spite of some heavy moments, I do believe birds of california is a good read to wrap up the summer season. There’s witty banter that provides a bit of comedy. And if you love romance, this novel definitely has it. Beware, it is for mature audiences only.
A slightly flawed but entertaining love story with striking depictions of post-#MeToo Hollywood. birds of california has my endorsement.
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