The vacation is written into our middle-class contract. We enter the workforce to earn money to squirrel away, but with the redemptive belief that there will be an opportunity for escape. Originally a luxury only for the elite, by the mid-19th century the vacation was tugged down a few class notches. Amid a growing religious and medical suspicion that perhaps our Puritan industriousness was turning against us, the vacation gained a prescriptive urgency. The beach wasn’t a luxury – it was a necessity.
The Last Good Paradise
St. Martin’s Press
February 10, 2015
Tatjana Soli’s latest book, “The Last Good Paradise,” unfurls against this psycho-social landscape. With elegant prose that can swell into poetic intervals or sharp commentary, Soli presents a book that courses with flawed, colorful characters, lavish food descriptions (courtesy of a chef protagonist) and political intrigue. But beneath its lovely veneer is a book that confronts the American urge to escape on the balmy, outermost beaches of Polynesia.
The novel centers on Ann, an unhappy, yet successful attorney. In the first pages, she watches a fire consume a Los Angeles home; the proofed glass of her office blocks out the sirens and 90-degree heat, effectively enveloping her in a reclusive, airless bubble. Ann is suspended in a state of prolonged emergency — her job and her marriage festering instead of blooming, leaving Ann “marooned and stationary” in her stale life.
Ann’s chef husband Richard is on the brink of opening his first restaurant (financed by Ann) and fraying around the edges, especially as he’s saddled with managing his unreliable, charismatic business partner, Javi. And beyond their financial strain, Ann’s own body is mutinying against a fertility treatment, which promises to deliver a baby she’s not sure she wants.
But before the siren call of motherhood sounds too shrill, the novel unleashes a set of legal circumstances that finally sends the couple on the luxury vacation they’ve put off for years (and funded by a trail of maxed out credit cards). There’s some delicious irony in the vacation finally taken to escape the law, but their flight mostly highlights the prolonged state of emergency that didn’t elicit escape — the paralyzed life, which contributes to its paralysis by spinning its wheels.
As it is, travel isn’t the solution so much as the fleeting answer: “In the old days, when California was the end of the line, before the forces of globalization, one could just keep flinging oneself farther and farther west, hopefully landing somewhere that fulfilled one’s dreams of happiness before one ended up back in the place one started.”
Once on the balmy outreaches of Polynesia’s furthest tropics, Soli continues to sow the text with germane seeds of satire: free of WiFi and cell reception, the resort basks in its gadget-free minimalism — which is slapped with a steep price tag, of course. Respite from society requires a chunk of change.
Beyond incisive commentary, the technology-free mandate severs Richard and Ann from all but memories of their old partners and bosses, which is crucial in transforming the island into a crammed stage full of combative egos. Once isolated, relationships unravel and reknit: somewhat implausibly, Ann’s rock star crush is vacationing there, along with his tan and supple-limbed girlfriend Wende who catches the eye of Richard.
The protagonists’ dissolution into the narration allows other residents to move into the foreground with varying results. While Loren, the resort’s mercurial owner with a mysterious past, plays an unlikely yet intriguing love interest for Ann, the rockstar and his girlfriend remain shallow even amid attempts to give them depth. Joli tries to repurpose the stock characters of Rockstar Sex God and Groupie, which feel flimsy against the originally hewed figure of Ann.
As Soli notes, lawyer-turned escapee Ann’s inner material is rich for excavation: “Wild could be in the heart of the most buttoned-down, burned-out lawyer … Wild was refuting the scratchy, dry surface of things and digging into the rich, loamy depths.”
What elevates this from a lovely character study is Soli’s heed to the invisible backbone of the resort — the native workers and their complex relationship with imperialism. The final third of the book unbinds the hidden hierarchy that organizes the island through a series of escalating political acts. Unlike Gaugan’s paintings that enamor Ann, this detour is surreal without artificiality; realistic and unromantic.
“The Last Good Paradise” binds all these components together as gracefully as possible — a loss of direction that stretches from the final third could have found its ways through a narrower scope, yet Soli’s detours are never tedious. Her quiet prose and lucid mediations ensure that regardless of its direction, “The Last Good Paradise” is always a pleasurable journey.