By Kate Milliken
Coming-of-age is hard in any place, at any time, but in the Topanga Canyon of Kate Milliken’s debut novel, “Kept Animals,” it’s a volatile concatenation of class, beauty, vulnerability and desire. Rory Ramos, a high schooler and stable hand, comes out to her family and experiences her first explosive love in legendary Topanga Canyon — a fraught, enchanted seam of earth connecting the Porsche glamour of Malibu with the dogged ordinariness of the San Fernando Valley. Milliken beautifully portrays this combustible social biome among the live oak, eucalyptus and chaparral lining nearby hillsides.
The novel begins with the Old Topanga fire of 1993, which burned for over a week and destroyed hundreds of homes. From there, Milliken takes us backward, examining the evolution of the area’s intricate social mix from an artist-hippie haven in the 1960s to the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of rich and poor in the 1990s. She shows readers how old money mingles with new money; how rural ranch hands and landowners share dusty roads with movie stars, all living in precarious coexistence. It’s telling that the book’s central location is an equestrian center at a ranch called Leaning Rock.
Rory works as an exercise girl at Leaning Rock, where her stepfather, Gus, is the stable manager. His relationship with her mother, Mona, is strained (among other tensions, Mona disapproves of Gus’s enthusiasm for taxidermy) and, between the complicated family dynamic and the difficulty of navigating Topanga’s hierarchies, Rory has turned shy and secretive. Her childhood survival strategy — hard work and invisibility — begins to fray when she is befriended by June Fisk, a competitive equestrienne who is the lesbian daughter of a prominent Malibu plastic surgeon and twin of the arrogant, homophobic Wade.
June encourages Rory’s first steps away from self-protective good-girlhood and into the risks and pleasures of teenage life: “Rory knew that through some invisible vibration in the air, she would feel Mona’s opinion of June, her fancy car and her orientation. Mona’s moods and opinions took up an inordinate amount of space in their house, but lately, Rory had noticed an energy within herself, something spirited, maybe even angry, and she’d been letting this new force make different choices for her.”
Grateful for their new friendship, Rory reveals a treasured secret to June: Her bedroom overlooks the pool of the movie star Everett Price, whose beautiful daughter, Vivian, is an object of intense observation and fascination. It’s June who first recognizes her friend’s sexual yearnings.
When a fatal accident shatters the canyon’s delicate balances, its repercussions ignite the lives of these teenagers and their families like a high school chemistry experiment — each destabilizing the others, breaking apart and recombining into volatile new elements. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy, like Rory, have the most to lose, while the moneyed darlings — Vivian, June and Wade — tempt fate from the safety of their privilege.
The novel’s most intriguing character is Vivian, a girl toying with the power of her fame and allure while nursing a sense of abandonment. Milliken dares us to sympathize, even while showing us how Vivian’s father’s relentless narcissism is being recreated in her willful choices. Rory cannot resist this beautiful, damaged girl, and will do anything to protect their secret affair — especially from the increasingly dangerous Wade Fisk, now Vivian’s boyfriend.
Replete with subplots and multiple points of view, the novel has more twists than the switchbacks of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Milliken trusts us to keep up with her fast-paced tale, catching clues on the fly as we careen through the intricate story lines. But she’s at her best when she lingers, treating us to deft insights and gorgeous, sensual description, especially of the natural world and the esoteric practices of horse breeding and competitive riding.
“Kept Animals” is an event-packed novel of class, desire, coming-of-age and familial disintegration. It’s also a knowing depiction of an unstable world where residents can be as treacherous as the landscape.