Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor

valleyfever_mech_2.inddHere’s the thing about breakups: They’re excruciating to go through, whether you’re the dumper or the person getting dumped. But let’s be frank. It’s also agonizing to listen to a friend or family member trapped in a prolonged period of mourning. So many protracted sighs. So much wallowing.

Katherine Taylor, whose 2007 debut novel Rules for Saying Goodbye featured four breakups, seems especially attuned to such antics. And in her follow-up Valley Fever, there are plenty more of these shenanigans to go around.

The book begins with a familiar scene at an airport as teary-eyed Ingrid Palamede blasts through the end of yet another relationship. Unlike her failed affair during a stint in Berlin as the manager of a crab-and-chowder cafe, or the romance with a childhood beau that crashed and burned in New York, this one came to a full stop as soon as her boyfriend Howard muttered: “I think I only love you when I’m drunk.”


What follows is the predictable aftermath. A drunken, foodless night at her older sister Anne’s L.A. home. Much stewing over the initial decision to leave her job and cozy flat with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on Manhattan’s West 84th Street 10 months earlier to live with the insensitive Howard in California. The inevitable “What am I doing with my life?” routine. And a return to Mommy and Daddy and her long-avoided hometown of Fresno. Because what else are parents for?

But the suffering doesn’t stop there. Just when Ingrid finally seems to have found her footing after a few months by (sort of) reconnecting with old pals and (halfheartedly) helping out on her parents’ 20,000-acre farm in the drought-afflicted Central Valley, her father falls ill with a debilitating cough and spots on his lungs, and Anne’s marriage crumbles. And though the beautiful and talented Anne only uses the Palamedes’ farm as a periodic pit stop before heading to New York to take her tepid acting career to the next level, one gets the sense that she, like Ingrid, has become a bit too unmoored for her own good.

With so much navel-gazing going on, it’s hard to engage with or feel pity for either Ingrid or Anne. And Taylor doesn’t help matters by clogging the book’s pages with tennis-match-like dialogue between two sisters who don’t know how to communicate and too many instances of one calling the other “selfish.” When their mother laments that she feels “like no one in this family talks and no one listens” to each other, it’s easy to see that she’s right.

Where Taylor shines is when she turns her gaze once again on dusty, parched Fresno — also featured in “Rules for Saying Goodbye” — and the very real and daunting plight of farmers who compete for buyers and riparian rights while trying to keep production high and overhead costs low. It’s in her descriptions of the peach and almond orchards; the acres of Thompsons, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Noir; and the crusty red dirt caked into the farmers’ hard-won tans that we learn the true value of Ingrid’s family’s land — and how integral it is to her renewal.

As Valley Fever comes to its abrupt conclusion (yes, there’s a late-in-the-game plot bomb), it’s still unclear whether Ingrid has truly found her place amid the vines — or whether Taylor was ever fully invested in scratching beneath the surface of Ingrid’s journey aside from rehashing the breakups. (What happened to the ex-boyfriend? Will she and her high school beau George, who also moved back to Fresno, rekindle their flame? Honestly, does she even like her sister?) Like a Cabernet made with grapes harvested too early in the season, the book’s flavor palette seems off somehow — yet nonetheless ripe with potential.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 23, 2015)

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