California Golden

A Novel





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August 8, 2023 | ISBN 9780593787359

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About the Book

Two sisters navigate the thrilling, euphoric early days of California surf culture in this dazzling saga of ambition, sacrifice, and the tangled ties between mothers and daughters from the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife.

“A shimmering rendering . . . pairs the surf culture of the Beach Boys with the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of Daisy Jones & The Six.”—Entertainment Weekly (“Best Books of the Summer”)

Southern California, 1960s: endless sunny days surfing in Malibu, followed by glittering neon nights at Whisky a Go Go. In an era when women are expected to be housewives, Carol Donnelly breaks the mold as a legendary female surfer struggling to compete in a male-dominated sport—and her daughters, Mindy and Ginger, bear the weight of Carol’s unconventional lifestyle.

The Donnelly sisters grow up enduring their mother’s absence—physically, when she’s at the beach, and emotionally, the rare times she’s at home. To escape questions about Carol’s whereabouts—and to chase her elusive affection—they cut school to spend their days in the surf. From her first time on a board, Mindy is a natural, but Ginger, two years younger, feels out of place in the water.

As they grow up and their lives diverge, Mindy and Ginger’s relationship ebbs and flows. Mindy finds herself swept up in celebrity, complete with beachside love affairs, parties at the Playboy Club, and a USO tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Ginger, desperate for a community of her own, is tugged into the dangerous counterculture of drugs and cults. But through it all, their sense of duty to each other survives, as the girls are forever connected by the emotional damage they carry from their unorthodox childhood.

A gripping, emotional story set at a time when mothers were expected to be Donna Reed, not Gidget, California Golden is an unforgettable novel about three women living in a society that was shifting as tempestuously as the breaking waves.
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Praise for California Golden

“Melanie Benjamin pairs the surf culture of the Beach Boys with the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll of Daisy Jones & the Six. . . . Benjamin’s novel is a portrait of three women beset by shifting cultural tides and a shimmering rendering of the promises and heartbreak of Southern California.”—Entertainment Weekly

“If you’re looking for a meticulously detailed breakdown of surf culture, look no further than Melanie Benjamin’s new novel . . . [a book] teeming with sand, sun, water, hot-pink bikinis and hamburger stands. . . . California Golden plants its feet firmly on the board and rides a powerful wave of nostalgia, eyes focused on the opportunities and dangers ahead.”—Los Angeles Times

“Benjamin vividly evokes the squalor and splendor of California surfing culture in this richly-textured novel that explores sisterhood, motherhood, ambition and friendship, with characters who rise alive from the page. It’s rare to find such raw, honest sympathy for human beings and their capacity for mistakes and redemption. California Golden is a breath of bracing salt air.”—Beatriz Williams, author of A Hundred Summers

“A gripping story about the power of family ties set in the edgy California surf culture and the glamorous and sometimes dangerous world of Hollywood celebrity, California Golden takes readers on an emotional, page-turning ride.”—Elyssa Friedland, author of The Most Likely Club

“California Golden left me breathless. Against the shimmering backdrop of California’s burgeoning surf culture, Melanie Benjamin explores the bonds of sisterhood and motherhood in an era where society, and its expectations of women, are ever changing. The Donnelly women, perfect in their imperfections, will stay with you long after the last page.”—Shelby Van Pelt, author of Remarkably Bright Creatures

“Melanie Benjamin does a superb job of showing the complicated relationships that happen in so many families. Her ability to describe the scenery of the California surf scene is unmatched. This is the perfect story for readers who want to get lost in an emotional novel about breaking barriers and being a family.”—Rachel Hanna, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Beach House

“You can practically hear The Beach Boys singing ‘California Girls’ in this novel about surfer sisters Mindy and Ginger Donnelly and their mother, Carol, a world-class athlete and terrible mom. Fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising will enjoy this story, which shares some of same locales, but the dysfunctional family at its center is one of a kind . . . This sun-soaked novel is wonderfully awash in the music, television, and fashion of the ‘60s as well as the counterculture movement.”—Kirkus Reviews

“With the charm and nostalgia of Beth Harbison’s Confessions of the Other Sister and Amy Mason Doan’s Lady Sunshine, Benjamin’s novel also shows what the sun-kissed highlight reels so often missed.”—Booklist
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California Golden



The surf giveth, and the surf taketh away—­thus said the Surf God every morning, noon, and night in his church, which was the universe, the planet, California, the beach, the waves.

On this holy day, the surf would most definitely giveth.

The sand was cool and soft as sugar between her toes, the California sun tolerable, not blasting, because it was February. Yet the day was warm enough that the girls in their vibrant bikinis, and the guys in their board shorts, weren’t covered in goose pimples as they danced to the wailing electric guitars of Dick Dale and His Del-­Tones—­twisting, shimmying, hand jiving. One girl’s bikini was covered in long fringe that seemed to pulse with a life of its own as she gyrated so fiercely it was a wonder she didn’t snap her pelvis.

Mindy laughed at the sight, then turned to do a groovy little two-­step with one of the hunky boys who’d gravitated into her orbit, for today she was the sun itself, radiating joy and contentment. She danced a little Watusi, a little Pony with a side of Mashed Potato. Raising her face to her fellow celestial being in a sisterly salute, she turned her back on the waves lapping the generous beach of Paradise Cove, tucked between tall sandy cliffs and a spindly wooden pier.

If the sand was sugar, then gumballs and peppermint drops dotted the sky in the form of beach balls. Surfboards stood like totems in the sand. And Dick Dale and his boys—­all clad in wild Hawaiian shirts, their crew-­cut heads bopping up and down rhythmically—­continued to give it their all as they cranked through the driving melody of “Let’s Go Trippin’.” The music—­propelled by that wailing electric organ—­almost drowned out the pounding surf as it hurled itself against the concrete pylons of the pier.

This is life, Mindy thought, grinning wildly at the other kids, who returned the joy, all smiling their blinding California smiles, teeth startlingly white against their suntanned faces. And why shouldn’t they be happy? They were all gorgeous, all young, all dancing on the beach on a Wednesday afternoon. She caught her sister’s eye; Ginger, with her curves, was naturally surrounded by guys with their tongues hanging out, but she managed to give Mindy a sly wink.

This should be my life, Mindy thought, correcting herself. Then, for the first time, the thin edge of the wedge:

Why can’t this be my life?

“Cut! Print!” The director, high atop his lifeguard’s chair, nodded decisively. The prerecorded music cut out abruptly, leaving Dick Dale and the Del-­Tones strumming soundless electric guitars that were not plugged in.

“That’s a wrap for the day, boys and girls,” the director continued, his words garbled through the cheap loudspeaker. “See you tomorrow, same time, same place, wearing what you are right now.”

There was an explosion of chatter and laughter as crew members started coiling cables, switching off the humming generators, and pushing the cameras back up the rickety wooden ramp toward the tent where they’d be protected from the salty night air. The two stars of the movie quickly headed off over the mounds of trucked-­in sand to their trailers, assistants throwing terry cloth robes over their pocket-­sized movie star bodies, which were coated in makeup, so different from the natural tans of all the locals, Mindy included. She snickered at the absurd hairstyle on the female star, a gravity-­defying upsweep coated with hairspray so not a single hair was disturbed by the ocean breeze. Mindy’s own hair was blond, bleached almost white by the sun, and conveniently short enough to style with her fingers.

As Dick Dale and his boys packed up their instruments, Mindy ran to grab a sweater she’d stashed behind a loudspeaker, pulling it quickly over her bikini; the sun was sinking fast.

“Hey, Mindy, where are you going?” Paula, the girl in the fringed bikini, came running up.

Paula wasn’t an extra like Mindy and her crowd; she had an actual named part in the film. She was practically a movie star! Why was she talking to Mindy?

“I don’t know, I usually drive back home or crash somewhere else,” Mindy said. “Why?”

“Some of us have been camping out here on the beach,” Paula answered. Her false eyelashes were mesmerizing, resembling black tendrils of seaweed, so long they almost grazed her eyebrows. Like the other extras, Mindy wore no makeup. She was never close enough to the camera to warrant it. And when she was out on the water, doubling the actual surfing for the female star, her head was encased in a smelly wig.

Paula giggled, for no reason at all; she was one of those Southern California girls who was all giggles and sunshine, always ready for a talent scout or a camera. “Why bother going back to a room, when we can build a fire and stay here all night? It’s fun. You should join us. We might even hitch a ride to Whisky a Go Go. I know someone playing.”

“I don’t have anything to wear to that!” Mindy gasped, then blushed. But it was the truth; her wardrobe was woeful compared to the other girls’ cute, trendy pedal pushers and miniskirts with matching headbands. And Whisky a Go Go? The club had opened a month ago, but already it was the place to be in Los Angeles. It was where starlets in white boots mingled with boys who drove convertibles. It was where all the kids of movie stars went.

It had nothing to do with the life that Mindy Donnelly lived.

“Oh, we’ll just raid Wardrobe. I’ll find you something cute. C’mon, it’ll be fun. Then we’ll crash here on the beach for the night and build a bonfire. Lots of kids are.”

Mindy could see that; there was no rush to get to cars, the cast were casually pulling on sweaters and jeans or slacks, girls were combing the sand out of their hair, boys were hauling logs from a place Mindy hadn’t noticed, and someone was loudly taking orders for hamburgers from the stand up the road. She thought of the long drive south and the long drive back up again in the morning—­or the distasteful alternative she’d done her best to avoid—­and bit her lip.

But on the periphery of her vision stood her sister.

Already the usual gang was gathering their boards to catch the last waves before heading to the disgusting shack farther down Malibu. Ginger waved at Mindy impatiently.

“Wait a minute, I need to talk to my sister. Don’t go without me!” Mindy called over her shoulder to Paula, who flashed her sunny smile in agreement.

“C’mon,” Ginger said when Mindy reached her. “We’re gonna miss the waves.”

“Some of the other kids are going to Whisky a Go Go, then camping out here on the beach. I guess they do that a lot—­I didn’t know that until now! They asked me to hang with them tonight.” Even as she tried to say it casually, to keep her cool, Mindy Donnelly still marveled at the notion. The movie crowd, asking her to join them! “You should, too—­it’ll be fun!”

“Fun?” A masculine voice, dripping disdain like surf spray, caused Mindy to tense. “You think going off with those kooks is fun?” Tom Riley challenged her, his dark eyes boring into her skin. “Jesus Christ, Mindy. You’re a real surfer, you won Makaha. For f***’s sake, you’re Carol Donnelly’s daughter. It’s OK to take their money and eat their food, but don’t let them corrupt you. You’re too good for that.”

Even as Mindy flushed with his unexpected praise—­Tom Riley was not known to praise any surfer other than himself, and she remembered a time when he hadn’t been so impressed with her—­she refused to allow him to spoil her fun.

“They’re kids. Nice kids.” Real kids, she wanted to say. Teenagers—­and I’ve never been a teenager, not really. Until now.

Because this was what she’d been fighting all day, before finally giving in to it during the big beach party scene they’d just filmed. The feeling that she was being given a gift, even if it was a celluloid gift as fake as the thirty-­year-­old lead actors pretending to be seventeen. And the gift was the possibility of a normal life, a typical California teenager life like she read about in magazines, heard in songs, saw on TV and in movies like the very one she was currently working on. Dates at the drive-­in, boys carrying your books to class while you looked perfect in a twinset and skirt, high school proms with silly themes, playing records in your room while your girlfriends painted their nails and tried out new hairdos and prank-­called boys, picnics on the beach (real picnics with sandwiches in wax paper and potato chips, not stewed seaweed and fish caught at dusk, crudely scaled and cooked whole on a pan over driftwood). Parents who cared enough to ground you if you came home late after necking with your steady in a convertible—­fun fun fun ’til her daddy takes the T-­bird away.

About the Author

Melanie Benjamin
Melanie Benjamin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Children’s Blizzard, Mistress of the Ritz, The Girls in the Picture, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Aviator's Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been. Benjamin lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she is at work on her next historical novel. More by Melanie Benjamin
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group