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Novels about the rich and empty face a self-evident problem: the emptiness. Victoria Patterson takes on those topics in This Vacant Paradise, about the misadventures of Esther Wilson amid the marriage market of ritzy Newport Beach, Calif., crowded with glittering mansions, lovely palm trees, upscale shopping emporia, and multi-millionaires. The difficulty is it’s not just this paradise that’s vacant. It’s everybody in it: the wealthy grandmother, the loaded boyfriend, the bored, golf-playing businessmen and their vapid wives. Largely this is because this is a book about the effects of money—“raised in secure affluence and having never experienced the misfortune and upheaval of poverty, they were disciplined to steer clear of anything out of the norm”—and how people wallow and find false security in it.
This Vacant Paradise sketches how striving constantly for money and membership in an elite class curdles human relations. This is not a new concern. Emile Zola wrote a novel about financial speculators and their hangers-on called Money. Vanity Fair is surely the masterpiece of the genre. Both portray greed, snobbery, and relentless social climbing in all their sordid reality, something that This Vacant Paradise valiantly aims at but sometimes misses, settling instead for repulsive personal details unconnected to its themes of money and class and their disfiguring—indeed crushing—effects on a certain type of female personality.
Esther, however, is complicated. Hard but at times humane, always on the lookout for the main chance, supported by well-to-do relatives, her credit card maxed out, working at and stealing from a swanky little women’s clothing store, Esther sees a lucrative marriage as her ticket out of dependency. But she repeatedly sabotages herself with small destructive acts of rebellion, which lead to painful wisdom. “Had she known sooner what was valuable in life—love, education, compassion—she would have prepared herself.” Instead she is tolerated in the magical realm of money, but always teeters on the brink of destitution. The sad part, of course, is that even knowing what is valuable guarantees nothing, poses no barrier to disaster, but merely sets a person, like her acquaintance Nora, on a different path. But then, unlike Esther, Nora is not beautiful, cannot reasonably aspire to the status of trophy wife and so perforce makes her own way, while Esther caroms from one catastrophe to the next, most of them self-inflicted.
This Vacant Paradise superbly depicts a certain milieu, despite the occasionally lazy prose and its tendency to lapse into the tropes of chick lit. Exclusive, moneyed, WASP-y, heterosexual society in Newport Beach comes across loud and clear, and it is ghastly, ruthlessly relegating to the margins those who manage to hang onto their humanity. For in the end it is Esther’s inability to sell herself to the highest bidder, her love for her desperate and psychically wounded brother, and all the qualities that in other circumstances could be considered virtues that undo her.