Rufi Thorpe's powerful debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar (Knopf), tells the story of the 20-year friendship between Mia and Lorrie Ann, two girls who grow up together in the eponymous Orange County beach town. Thorpe deftly uses the girls' diverging life paths to explore not just themes of female friendship, but also obstetrical malpractice, the complicated and sometimes dark rights and responsibilities of motherhood, and the power of Sumerian poetry.
In her review of the novel in The Los Angeles Times, Steph Cha writes: "Thorpe is a gifted writer who depicts friendship with affection and brutality, rendering all its love and heartbreak in painstaking strokes." The novel has been long listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
I spoke with Rufi Thorpe about "The Girls from Corona del Mar."
Mary Pauline Lowry (MPL): Lorrie Ann and Mia grow up in the early 90s in Corona del Mar, which was a "decayed, beautifully perfumed" SoCal beach town. Both girls leave Corona del Mar when they graduate from high school. But their hometown is an Eden to which they cannot return because, as Mia says, "....the Corona del Mar in which Lorrie Ann and I grew up actually ceased to exist almost at the exact moment we left." Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to grow up in a place that has since changed irrevocably?
Rufi Thorpe (RT): Growing up in Corona del Mar was pretty weird for exactly this reason: the town I remember from childhood was changing even by the time I was in high school. As a kid, it was a modest, middle class beach town -- Albertson's grocery and gas stations and delis. My mother and I lived in the safe but strange center part of a Venn diagram between privilege and poverty; we had oriental carpets but sometimes not enough money to buy groceries. My grandmother told my mother it was cruel to even let me look at a boarding school catalogue, but my mother was determined to get me there. I went to Exeter, and we're still paying it off today.
I would come home from boarding school at holidays to find not one or two new businesses, but whole shopping centers, new wings of the mall, and all of it bespoke a wealth I found unfathomable and distressing. It's not a problem for your town to get wealthy, but it is surreal, especially when your family isn't part of the upswing. Corona del Mar fostered in me a sense of out-of-place unease, as the influx of wealth continued all around our crumbling, 1947 stucco beach cottage. We'd joke our neighbors must hate looking at it but held a stubborn pride at the ancient, fickle plumbing and uneven floors that made dropped marbles roll in spirals.
People call Corona del Mar "The Village" now in a way that I think is a little yuppie and weird, if only because I can't remember anyone ever calling it that when I was growing up, but the truth is, it is a village. It is a surreally wealthy, peculiarly outdated village-- the type of village that marks a kid like Mia as an outsider even though she loves it in ways she can't entirely understand.
MPL: As an adult, the narrator Mia works on a translation of Sumerian poetry about the goddess Inanna, and she thinks of Lorrie Ann's addiction in terms of Inanna's trip to the underworld. How did you first learn of the poetry about Inanna, and decide to use it to underpin the structure and themes of "Girls"?
RT: Inanna came into my life as a used paperback with a peeling red cover given to me by an ex-boyfriend. He was Russian and unbelievably, even goofily serious, but also dazzlingly brilliant. The guy had killer taste in books, and he must have known when he put that book in my hand that he was setting off a bomb. It put a spell on me. I had never read anything like it. Inanna was so unlike the goddesses I had encountered in the Greco-Roman tradition. She was raw and sexy and she thirsted after death. The words were ringingly ancient, so much so that reading them aloud seemed to transform the air in the room.
When I was struggling with how to discuss what it means to really become a woman, what it actually feels like to grow up, the marriage plot with all its happily-ever-after's was just no use to me. But Inanna gave me a way forward, a way of thinking about wisdom gained and lost and bought back again at high personal cost. She was a model I could turn to when I didn't have the words for my own experience.
MPL: "The Girls from Corona del Mar" addresses the landscape of Obstetrics, where, as the character Lorrie Ann--who has been the victim of medical malpractice during childbirth--says, "No one listens to a woman in labor." Can you talk a little bit about this idea and why you chose to write about it in "Girls"?
RT: I suppose I chose to write about it because I myself had a very bad birth with my
son. For me, it wasn't an issue of medical malpractice, just the ordinary cascade of
interventions leading to a c-section.
When I was in the operating room, I was by myself and I didn't know where my husband was. I hadn't slept or eaten in 24 hours. "Please," I said to the anesthesiologist, "can you tell me what is going to happen? I'm really scared." I had to repeat this several times before he noticed I was talking. He was busy joking with the other doctors and nurses in the room. He slapped me on the side of the face in a joking way and said, "Don't worry, you won't feel a thing." I was crying.
When my husband came in, he didn't know what to say to me. He just held my hand.
When they pull the baby out, it is so forceful it lifts your hips off the table. It is very painful, even though you have anesthesia, though when I screamed, the anesthesiologist said, "That doesn't hurt. That doesn't hurt." Once my son was out, they took him away immediately to be bathed and put in that little cap. My husband went with them. I could hear them all talking and taking pictures. Later they came over and took pictures of the baby next to my face. I wanted very badly to die. I hoped I would begin bleeding and die. My husband was escorted somewhere else with the baby as they finished sewing me up.
Once he and the doctor were out of the room, the nurses or orderlies or whoever was finishing with me started talking about how much they hated my doctor and how they should have just scheduled me for a c-section. How it was always the women who tried to go natural who wound up with a section. If they noticed that I was quietly weeping, they didn't say anything about it. They banged my little rolling bed into the door as we left, laughed, "Whoops!" I vomited from motion sickness as we moved down the hallway. This improper vomiting of mine would mean that I didn't get to hold my baby for another hour or so, until I had proved to the nurse in my room that I wasn't going to do it again.
I have loved being a mother deeply. I fell in love with my baby the moment he was in my arms. But I had a really hard time processing the birth itself. I kept thinking weird things about my doctor. I would think, "His hands were in my body. His hands were inside me." I felt like my organs had been tainted by the fact that he had touched them. When he started to cut me, someone in the room had said, "Jesus, easy, you're not trying to take out her appendix!" I felt dirty and ashamed, even though I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong that I should feel this way. In the most sacred moment of my life, nothing had been sacred. Not the birth of my child, and certainly not my body. I felt like my doctor had turned me into meat by treating me like meat. But everything that happened to me was standard procedure. None of it was malpractice.
MPL: In the book, you relate the passages where Inanna is in the underworld to Lorrie Ann's birth experience. Did you feel a connection between the poem and your own birth experience?
RT: The passages in the underworld definitely resonated differently with me after my birth. The lines are: "Inanna was turned into a corpse/ A piece of rotting meat / And was hung from a hook on the wall."
And I thought: I know what that feeling is. In a way, I wish I could have given Lorrie Ann more of my own experience, the terrifying ordinariness of it. The routine-ness. But for plot reasons, it was necessary to make the situation more dramatic.
MPL: One of my favorite things about "Girls" is that the most profound conversations about motherhood occur between Lorrie Ann and Mia when Lorrie Ann is strung out on heroin. This makes it unclear whether Lorrie Ann is incredibly insightful or just out of her mind. Was there a reason you had a character in such an unreliable state say the most radical things about motherhood and the rights of mothers?
RT: Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that one could read Lorrie Ann being on heroin as being "out of her mind," though I can see how you would think that! I guess I thought that she would be disinhibited, emotionally off-kilter, inappropriate, but not unable to reason. These are things she has been thinking about for some time, not spur of the moment musings affected by her high. By this point in the novel, Lorrie Ann has stepped outside of the world of convention and her thinking is allowed to reflect her own, personal and immediate experience instead of being forced to conform to socially normative sentiments about mothers and children.
So much of the discussion Mia and Lorrie Ann are having hinges on huge ideas about rights, about "naturalness," about civilization itself and how we regulate our own animal natures in order to fit inside it. Women especially have a long history of not being entirely able to fit comfortably into the polis. For most of recorded history, of course, we were chattel. We became citizens, able to own property and vote, really relatively recently. Questions about who owns our bodies or how society ought to be allowed to regulate our relationships with our children are arising continually precisely because these situations are new.
MPL: During one of these conversations, Lorrie Ann points out that while raising children is perhaps the most essential thing women do, women become invisible when they are mothers. Lorrie Ann says, "Everyone cares what a pretty, young girl says and does....But when you become a young mother? People don't give a f*ck what you're doing. Their eyes glaze over before they even finishing asking you. Once a woman starts doing the most important work of her life, all of a sudden, nobody wants to know a thing about it." Could you talk a little bit about this idea of motherhood and invisibility?
RT: Certainly it was my own experience that my wonderment over my child and my absorption in the minutiae of caring for him were entirely uninteresting to other people, with the sole exception of other mothers. Other mothers of young children are absolutely interested, obsessively so, and there are thousands of websites and forums and message boards to prove it. But I found myself unable to really communicate my experience to people outside that world. It was like there was some kind of spell over me so that every time I tried, all that came out was a powerless cliché. The person listening would smile and nod and not understand me at all. Eventually, I began to feel that motherhood itself was a powerful secret I was keeping. I think all parents feel a bit this way, not just women by any means. But having children is such a staggeringly beautiful experience that maybe it is not possible to talk about it at all.