Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Valley Fever," by Katherine Taylor

On 8/11/15 I wrote about Katherine Taylor’s debut novel, “Rules for Saying Goodbye.” Her new novel, “Valley Fever” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is also well written, and also features a semi-lost young woman as the main character who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. “Rules” took place mostly in New York; the very different setting for “Valley Fever” is Fresno, California, where the character Ingrid returns to be with her family after a relationship breaks up. Fresno is a midsize city in the San Joaquin Valley (which is in turn part of the Central Valley) with agriculture as the main focus. Ingrid plans to stay only a short time while she figures out what to do next with her life, but gets drawn into helping her father with his vineyards. Also, although there are things she dislikes about Fresno, in other ways it feels like home, and she soon takes up with old friends and old ways (e.g., she immediately returns to the same bars and restaurants she used to go to, and starts hanging out with some of the same people, including her former boyfriend). The novel is unusual in its close, detailed portrayal of a site rarely focused on (“The Valley”), and of actual working people. Not people working in offices in New York, or writing, or doing any of the more glamorous jobs often featured in novels, but people working hard at keeping an agricultural enterprise going. There is so much that can go wrong with the grapes and other crops grown in California’s great valley, to do with weather, diseases, shortages and gluts, labor, politics, and much more. So this novel is a refreshing change in this way, although it is also a grim reminder of the difficulties and uncertainties faced by farmers. Ingrid finds herself drawn to this work, and even feels good about the hard work and long hours. She finds she is quite good at the work, and manages it well. But she, like her father with his trust and integrity, also finds that it is very hard to know whom to trust, and that competing with the big boys can be a treacherous enterprise. “Valley Fever” also gives us insights into family dynamics, the intimate connections among the main players in the story, the shifting friendships mixed with business relationships, and the ways in which people can in some cases support, but in other cases profoundly betray, their “friends” and those they do business with. I realize that this may sound less than enticing as a novel, but it kept my attention, and I think other readers might also appreciate the unusual setting and the portrayal of a world not so often delineated in fiction these days, along with the insightful portrayals of the characters and their relationships. I also found it interesting because although I never lived there, I have family in Fresno; they have no personal connection to farming or vineyards, but agriculture is part of the environment and ethos of the area. I could recognize some of the descriptions of the city and the surrounding areas. Katherine Taylor is definitely a writer to watch.
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