A great title for a novel would be, The Coast Road.
“Expectations of such a read would be a story set along remote stretches of the California coast where the road remains two-lanes separated by only a few stretches of a dashed dividing line. The road runs through bucolic grassy scenery over rolling hills of farmland. A series of upthrust-sheared marine terraces bejeweled by ancient southern Sierra pink granite exposures. Multi-faceted characters range from the people who moved to the coast to enjoy open-space and want only to make a comfortable living, versus the developers and real estate agents who want only to sell-out the scenic vistas and rail against any design-oversight for the structures they wish to build. Maybe there’s more to the plot than that, although that is the story mostly played out all along this Coast Road.
At the very least, when a book is titled, “The Coast Road,” then the reader better find plenty of setting along, uh, the Coast Road.
A title search yields two results. One, a romance set along Highway 1 in Monterey County, California, written by an East Coast American, and the other, a mystery by an Australian about his country’s Highway 1, the “Prince’s Highway,” which runs south from Sydney on the continent’s east shore. Both are but one in a string of many books to these two authors’ credit.
Coast Road #1
The American book, so full of promise (should the reader judge a book by its cover), with one glance the expectation’s set: A good read about the California coast. The cover’s image is unmistakably Highway 1’s roadcut through Big Sur country. Cluster of mailboxes mirror an out of view dirt road across the highway and up the hill. Wild beauty of the Pacific blue meeting an early summer golden California. Once inside the cover however, expectations are righted. In the author’s acknowledgements she writes, “Coast Road was born of three things I admire – the Big Sur coast, people with artistic ability, and men who rise to the occasion. My own instinct as a woman, plus an annual trip to Big Sur, helped with research into those things, but there were other elements of the book that required outside expertise.”
She had me at the “Big Sur coast,” but lost me with “men who rise to the occasion.” Plus, a red flag is raised when I see a mere “annual trip to Big Sur.”
This is not a local, nor a California native, writing about their homeland.
Also in the acknowledgements is reference to Pukaskwa National Park, “Nor did anything of Pukaskwa make it into the Coast Road.”
Why should it? Pukaskwa is a National Park of Canada in Ontario, a location 2,000 miles away from Big Sur, California.
Anyway, the story: an artist living in Big Sur is struck from behind while driving to her book group on the Coast Road. Taken to the hospital in a coma, her ex-husband is called down from San Francisco to take care of their daughters while she heals. Although plenty of opportunities present themselves to describe the scenic beauty and local character to be found along the Coast Road while the ex- drives south from San Francisco on 101 to Monterey, then south on 1 to Big Sur, no details of the coastscape are provided.
And even off the Coast Road, up one of those dirt roads uphill from the book cover’s cluster of brightly painted mailboxes, the ex- provides a perfect scene in which to wax poetic of Big Sur’s landscape, yet the author fails to rise to the occasion by writing merely, “Pulling in on a rough gravel drive, he climbed from the car, and for a minute he stood there unable to move, breathing in something different, drawn to it. Fresh air, he decided, snapping to with an effort. He stretched and rubbed his face with his hands. He needed a shave, a shower, and some sleep. What he got depended on what he found inside.”
“Fresh air?” “Something different?”
Why, even Henry Miller, originally an East Coast writer, provides the reader more description of Big Sur with his, “Here at Big Sur, at a certain time of the year and a certain time of the day only, a pale blue-green hue pervades the distant hills; it is an old, nostalgic hue which one sees only in the works of the old Flemish and Italian masters. It is not only the tone and color of distance, abetted by the magic fall of light, it is a mystical phenomenon . . . At dawn I look out to the sea, where the far horizon is painted with bands of rainbow tints, and then at the hills that range the coast . . . If there is a ship in sight the sun’s bent rays give it a gleam and sparkle which is utterly dazzling . . . Toward sundown, when the hills in back of us are flushed with that other “true light,” the trees and scrub in the canyons take on a wholly different aspect. Everything is brush and cones, umbrellas of light . . . It is no longer earth and air, but light and form – heavenly light, celestial form. When this intoxicating reality reaches its height the rocks speak out.”
Mr. Miller. I’ll take that certain “heavenly light, celestial form” over “something different,” “fresh air” any day.
Resident. Lover of the Land. Intimately familiar with a landscape down to its different appearance depending on the light of the day. Therein lies the rub. The East Coast writer of Coast Road provides zero landscape settings in her book, whereas Mr. Miller, originally also East Coast, wrote his landscape observation only after living countless days and nights within the Big Sur scenery. Such intimacy allows for detailed writing that a mere “annual trip to Big Sur” can not provide.
An East Coast author writing about Big Sur and its Coast Road through an annual trip, is about as similar as a shiksa like me writing a novel about Israel and the West Bank using Google Earth.
The story winds on, characters described, dialogue muttered, but no including the Coast Road as a setting in this book. The title could very easily have been Pukaskwa National Park.
Coast Road #2
On the other hand, the Australian Coast Road is rife with Coast Road settings. This mystery not only has action taking place in several towns along the Coast Road, but these locales are very well-described, so much that the characters are defined and ruled by the coastal locations. Surprising find is that this Australian writer’s coastscape could easily pass for our California Coast Road by some of its description of the coastal culture.
“You leave the highway south of Waterfall if you want the coast road . . . the coast has special appeal for me and I remembered the coastline south . . . as spectacular. A tonic to an old surfer. I got a greatest hits station on the radio and settled back to enjoy the drive . . . The Eagles and Credence were good company and . . . the Beach Boys felt like a bonus.”
Great for the reader, this! We’re in the car, riding along, listening to music. A universal music, it seems, as The Eagles, Credence, and the Beach Boys are just at home on an Australian coast drive as they would be anywhere along the California coast.
“A flashing sign above the road read: COAST ROAD CLOSED . . . The narrow road carved into the cliff with a straight drop to the sea is fragile. Signs in this area read ‘Falling Rocks Do Not Stop’ and they don’t.”
Ahh, yes – same here in California. A small detail, road signs,yet Californians have Falling Rocks as well. Mmm, the devil’s in the details, I tell you. Engage the reader thus.
“You have to understand how things are down here. Local matters determine the thinking and the action. Fred had an offer for his place. Good offer, but he turned it down. Me too. Has to be a developer, even though the area can’t be subdivided. But the pressure builds and zoning can be changed. The council is keen to get more ratepayers. The cops want more paved roads, gutters, street lights, fewer secluded acres where people can grow dope, …”
“‘Bit of rain here lately,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘All we need. A bit more at the right time in the right place and that coast road’s history. There’s a metre wide crack running for fifty metres on the sea side of the road. Deep, too.’
‘Aren’t they working on it?’
‘Thinking about it. But we’re not here to talk about the weather or roads are we?'”
Oh sweet satisfaction. Within dialogue the author provides the reader plenty of description. From developers to pot farmers, a multi-faceted cast of characters lead our detective protagonist to solve a cover-up along the Coast Road. A road as susceptible to wet weather as California’s Highway 1.
With these two reads, I bash the former and have fun with the latter. “Oh go easy,” you might comment about the first, “It’s just a romance!” The only reply I could give is to ask that you read Wallace Stegner’s, “All The Little Live Things.” Stegner, the master of landscape writing, writes a romance in ATLLT that will not only break your heart, but have you falling in love with both the characters and the setting. His Portola Valley is as much a part of the book as the characters and the plot they take the reader through.
The key, then, is if an author titles their book on a place, they must write that place into the story so interwoven that the story could not have taken place any where else in the universe. Although I compare the Australian’s work as being uncannily similar to California, I’ve ellipsis’d out place names, just to play with the geographic interchangeability. If you read this fun book, you’ll find it completely Australian in setting, as well as humour.