By Rachel Cline
Random House, 252 pages, $23
In my experience, New Yorkers tend to be bipolar when it comes to Los Angeles: Either they love it—love it!—after visiting once or twice, and quietly nurse dreams of living there at some point, or they hate it—really hate it—and look with disdain on their neighbors who secretly lust for West Coast weather and perma-tans. Often, those with hate in their bellies have actually spent time in L.A., and will warn the others: Trust me, if you lived there, if you knew what I knew, you’d hate it, too. It’s all plastic. No way, say the dreamers. How could you hate a place with so much sun, so many movies and so much good Mexican?
Until I read Rachel Cline’s My Liar, I counted myself among those with California dreams. On my few trips to L.A., I even loved the driving! But if the characters in Ms. Cline’s book are at all typical of Angelenos—and I think they’re meant to be—then, no thanks! It’s just like I’ve been warned: full of narcissists, creeps and insecure idiots.
My Liar tells the story of Annabeth Jensen, a Minnesota transplant to L.A. who works as a film editor. It’s the early 90’s, and she lives in Venice with her boyfriend, David, in a leaky bungalow with decent, if not immediate, access to the ocean. She meets Laura Katz, a semi-famous indie film director, at a party where there’s an elephant that’s been hired to be “the elephant in the room.” This is L.A., folks.
We know from the first chapter—which is set after the action, with the bulk of the book told as backstory—that Annabeth will work with Laura on her sophomore feature film, Trouble Doll, about a down-on-her-luck stripper who gets killed. (The process of making the film propels the book.) We also know that at some point the two women will have a falling out, since an encounter they have at the start of the novel is fraught.
My Liar goes on to examine the tension between Annabeth and Laura: one tiny, dark, accomplished; the other tall, fair and insecure. At times there are hints of sexual overtones in their relationship, and one might cruise through the book waiting for a Laurel Canyon-esque girl-on-girl encounter to explain the source of their weird personal dynamic. But it never comes. All we get is a dream toward the end where Annabeth is splicing film of her kissing Laura.
The real problem here is that Annabeth is as spineless as a windsock, waiting for some external force to help her fly. Laura, meanwhile, is an almost-parody of a compromised talent—almost, because her character is so thin we can’t be sure she has talent at all.
If My Liar had gone for archness—Trouble Doll, for instance, is a perfect name for a kind of 90’s indie flick that we loved in college—it might have been a riot. But Ms. Cline seems to have wanted us to invest in her characters—at least Annabeth and her Nirvana-head boyfriend, if not Laura and her sex-addict husband.
Then again, maybe Ms. Cline, who grew up in New York, moved to Los Angeles for a few years and then fled back east, intends her book as nothing more than a cautionary tale.
If so, then My Liar is a success.
Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer.