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Carolyn See Biography

Carolyn See comments:

Pseudonym: Monica Highland (with Lisa See and John Espey). Nationality: American. Born: Carolyn Penelope Laws, Pasadena, California, 1934. Education: Los Angeles City College, A.A.; California State University, Los Angeles, M.A., Ph.D. Career: Waitress, 1950s; teaching assistant, 1960s; professor of English, Loyola Marymount University, 1970-85; visiting professor of English, 1986-89, and adjunct professor of English, both University of California, Los Angeles. Book reviewer, Los Angeles Times, 1981-93; New York Newsday, 1990-92; and since 1993 Washington Post. President, PEN West International, 1990-91. Awards: Vesta award, 1989, for writing; Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, 1990-91; Lila Wallace teaching grant, 1992-93; Women's Care Cottage Apple award, 1991; Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch body of work award, 1993. Member: National Book Critics Circle; Writers Guild of America. Agent: Anne Sibbold, Janklow Nesbit Agency, 589 Madison Ave., New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



The Rest Is Done with Mirrors. New York, Little Brown, 1970.

Mothers, Daughters. New York, Coward McCann Geoghegan, 1977.

Rhine Maidens. New York, Coward McCann Geoghegan, 1980; Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, 1981.

Golden Days. New York, McGraw Hill, 1986; London, Century, 1987.

Making History. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America. New York, Random House, 1995.

Novels as Monica Highland (with Lisa See and John Espey)

Lotus Land. New York, McGraw Hill, 1983.

110 Shanghai Road. New York, McGraw Hill, 1986.

Greeting from Southern California. New York, McGraw Hill, 1988.


Blue Money: Pornography and the Pornographers. New York, Rawson, 1973.

Two Schools of Thought, with John Espey. Santa Barbara, California, Daniel, 1991.


Manuscript Collection:

Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.

When I started to write I was relatively old, and lived in California. So I was the wrong sex, wrong age, wrong coast. Luckily I was too ignorant to know it. I've always had to write to make a living, and have a solid background in journalism from my father. My formal education more or less rolled off my back, critical theory means nothing to me, less than nothing.

I try to write about the larger world—nuclear war, the random nature of the universe, the oppression of the American underclass through drugs and drink. I've only written one "lady" novel, Mothers, Daughters, and I'm embarrassed for it. But I'm proud of the rest of my work.

* * *

Carolyn See's novels explore women's lives, broken relationships, and all things Californian. See has tackled the usual gamut of male-female romance, but she has also taken on the subjects of mothers, daughters, and aging in Rhine Maidens; female friendship, religious evangelism, and nuclear war in Golden Days; and international business, stepfamilies, and grieving in Making History. See uses strong first-person narration in her best work, some of which is rendered in diary form.

The Rest is Done With Mirrors, See's first novel (and generally not thought to be her best work), tells of two UCLA graduate students and their troubled relationships. Much of See's early work appears to be loosely biographical and deals with marital breakups. Her second novel, Mothers, Daughters, follows a divorced TV reporter, Ruth, as she negotiates a blossoming romance with Marc, the former beau of two of her female friends. Both the third-person narration and the plot are highly formulaic and plodding. See includes many cavalier references to her characters' acid trips and a great deal of humor, however, thus preventing the novel's easy categorization as mass-market romance.

With Rhine Maidens, See's masterful characterizations and clever dialogue emerge more fully formed. The story of the neurotic, stubborn Grace, left by several husbands and facing retirement alone, is coupled with that of her daughter, Garnet, a "useless" wealthy housewife who is into est and interior decorating. Garnet's story is presented as her assigned journal from the freshman composition class she has enrolled in to improve herself. Grace's narration is given as a would-be dialogue with the dead friend of her youth, Pearl. Both women unwillingly take stock of their failing and failed relationships with husbands and children.

The "Rhine maidens" of the title refers to a cruise on the Rhine River that Grace begrudgingly takes with the aging (and similarly alone) Edna. At novel's end, Grace, forever unable to have a good time, may in fact be letting go of her worries, and Garnet is poised to leave her rich housewife days behind her. The novel masterfully explores what happens when mothers and daughters not only don't get along but don't even like each other. Class conflicts and colliding generational values add further color.

Golden Days's title is taken from John Milton's Paradise Lost, and See's novel verges on religious allegory. It is no less gripping a tale for this feature. Readers follow gemologist Edith as she negotiates single parenting and teaches classes to prepare wealthy married women for their husbands' desertions by stockpiling jewels. Edith's reestablished friendship with Lorna, a caged housewife turned healer and evangelist, provides one of the most interesting story lines.

Women's friendships rarely receive short shrift from See. She writes:

There was a basic inequality in the country I grew up and lived in. One man, one story. For women, it generally took two or even three to make one story…. This is partly the story of Lorna Villanelle and me; two ladies absolutely crazed with the secret thought that they were something special.

Everyone's "specialness" is seemingly leveled with the dropping of a nuclear bomb. See's novel, however, is one of hope and survival rather than mere despair—an ode to the sustenance of storytelling.

See's past efforts made use of "miracles," but Making History is the first to delve so deeply into the supernatural and into life after death. This novel deals with the functional yet vapid marriage of Jerry and Wynn and their family: Whitney (Wynn's teenage daughter by a first marriage), Tina, and Josh. Jerry's frequent business trips to Asia involve visits to prostitutes, written off as inconsequential infidelities. Wynn involves herself in the second-rate prep school her children attend and congratulates herself for having gotten out of a bad first marriage and into relative comfort. As Wynn remembers her father saying, however, "Life has a way of kicking the shit out of you." The novel involves fatal car accidents, friendships broken by grief, and marriages strained to the breaking point. As in Golden Days, how-ever, See manages to hone the resilience in her characters while showing us the fragility of the order in our daily lives. The Handyman also calls up spiritual images: like Christ, protagonist Bob Hampton is a carpenter who goes around changing people's lives for the better. The oversexed Hampton would hardly be mistaken for the Savior, however, and the novel verges into over-the-top contrivance, but See manages to tie it all together with a story that also compellingly presents an L.A. of surprising beauty.

See is also a memoirist. With her partner, John Espey, she published Two Schools of Thought: Some Tales of Learning and Romance, reflections on Oxford (his) and UCLA (hers). She has also written an account of generations of her family's alcoholism, Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America. Furthermore, Espey, See's daughter Lisa See Kimball, and See have also joined forces to create the novels of Monica Highland, Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road.

—Devoney Looser

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