Living in northern California, close to San Francisco, I seldom have reason to ever really consider what life in Los Angeles must be like. In the last ten years, beyond the amusement parks that litter the LA suburbs, I’ve never had reason or need to visit. As a backpacking European in the 1990s, a friend and I stopped in LA to visit the Getty Museum. We were towards the end of our trip and running low on funds, so in an effort to save what little money we had, the pair of us decided to take the bus from the Amtrak station, all across LA, to a youth hostel in Santa Monica. My friend, the now Mrs Y and I boarded that bus without a worry in the world, but the reality was that we stood out like sore thumbs, with our English accents and naive attitudes. One of the guys on the bus asked me if I would like to go out with him. I declined his kind offer, only to be told – as if it would somehow seal the deal – that he had a gun. I was young, wide-eyed and innocent, but not a fool. If there was a threat there, I chose to ignore it and two days later we moved on from LA.
I’ve never been back since in any meaningful way, although I have of course heard tales of gang violence, traffic, pollution and ‘La-La Land’ attitudes, built up around the entertainment industry. In all these years I have never once stopped to think about the origins of the city. I have it pigeon-holed in my mind as a one trick entertainment pony and until reading A Student of History by Nina Revoyr, had never really paused to give it a second thought.
Revoyr, like her main protagonist Rick Nagano, is a Japanese American who clearly understands the social structure of LA from not only a race, but a financial perspective. Rich is a struggling PhD student, attempting to finish a dissertation that has long since ceased to interest him. In need of extra funds he takes a job as an assistant to Mrs W_ an ageing member of LA’s true social elite. Whilst typing up her journals, Rich begins to forge a fledgling friendship with Mrs W_ and is asked to accompany her to various social engagements around town. This in turn provides him with access to a level of society of which he previously had no knowledge, a group of families operating way above the norm of LA society. These are the children and grandchildren of the original founders of the city, a small group of the the mega wealthy who have always moved in and out of each others lives. These people are able to donate vast amounts of cash to philanthropic causes and at times, will place massive investments simply to irritate each other or to best each other in a long standing family feud. Of course, Rich has no place in such society, but begins to befriend a woman a little older than himself, Fiona Morgan, with troubling consequences.
A Student of History works on so many different levels, that I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. Firstly, Revoyr writes beautifully, enviably so, bringing to life this version of LA for those of us who had never so much as contemplated it. There is a gentle mystery within the pages too, it’s not absolutely what the story is about, but it’s certainly sufficient to keep you moving forward and finally, it’s just a fascinating read.
I was discussing this book with my friend Ms M, outlining how I had never really considered the social structure of LA previously, or that there could be families worth more than the movie producers, film stars or social media worshipers that we hear so much about nowadays. I was trying to describe to her how the people in Revoyr’s novel operate and she phrased it so succinctly, saying that they operate ‘above the radar’, which is exactly what they do. The unseen, powerful American families that have more more money than God.
If you are looking to understand how Los Angeles functions, then this is a must read.