Sasha Paulsen has written a sweet gumdrop of a novel. “Dancing on the Spider’s Web” is a cloud of cotton candy, a box of macarons, or a bowl of strawberry ice cream. It immerses you in a warm cocoon of paisley silks, down pillows and sunlight.
It’s about Sarah Glass, a girl who grew up in Paulsen’s — and my — home, the Napa Valley. She goes to New York for medical school but halfway through, she decides to take a month off. She travels to San Francisco, and as with so many people before her, what starts as a short stay turns into one much longer than anticipated. She gets entangled with all sorts of lovable characters, who do silly San-Francisco-in-the-’70s things.
Chief among them are the Scoundrels of Leisure, a group of misfits who have drug-addled salons at a house in the Berkeley Hills. Gay and mercurial, Gabriel Dinesen, the Chief Scoundrel, becomes her friend, and they eventually end up retreating to a pre-Prohibition castle in the Napa Valley, the site of an abandoned hippie commune from the ‘60s.
The novel takes place in 1977, not 2019, so the San Francisco we experience in the book is not the San Francisco we know now, with its Google buses and smartphones. It’s a San Francisco that I, having been born in 1978, long for, which made the book a joy to read.
In fact, it would have made sense if Sarah had rented a room from Anna Madrigal at 28 Barbary Lane. In tone and spirit, it is very similar to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” But Sarah’s address at Stanyan and Haight is just as ideal a setting for her coming of age.
The crux of the book is the relationship between Sarah and Rory McIntyre, her high school crush. Rory, who left Napa High School in a blaze of glory bound for Harvard, is, some years later, a college drop-out, a single father with two young (and adorable) children who mostly keep him at his wit’s end. They reconnect in San Francisco, setting the story in motion.
Rory is haphazardly working on an astrophysics project at UC Berkeley, which might or might not lead to a career. But however much he might wish to lose himself in the vast reaches of outer space, his attention keeps being pulled back to Earth. Is he interested in stars, Sarah asks him. No, Rory says, they are too far away.
Book-smart Sarah is at her own crossroads. She does like science; she is just not sure how much she likes people, hospitals, doctors or medicine. She yearns for intangible things — love, beauty, art — even though she mistrusts them. She is drawn to Rory, but keeps veering back to the zany companionship of Gabriel whose own goal is to build a better kite that he did last year.
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The sometimes comic confusion that results is what Paulsen has described as “the winter after the Summer of Love.”
One of the funnest aspects of the book is that the Napa Valley is as much a character in the book as Sarah, Rory or Gabriel. The best doughnuts are found at Butter Cream Bakery. When Sarah gets into a car accident she goes to the Queen of the Valley Medical Center. Matt Biagi, Rory’s high school classmate who opens the first white tablecloth restaurant in St Helena — he is someone I know I’ve met before, or at least read about in the Register. And, as a proud Vallergas shopper for the entire 12 years I’ve lived in Napa, I was so happy to see Joe McIntyre (Rory’s father) shop for seafood at the best supermarket in town. RIP Vallergas.
The book is not without some drawbacks, mainly in missed opportunities. Sarah’s father is Mexican, and this point is mentioned obliquely many times, but, as with many things, Sarah is detached from that aspect of her life, until unexpectedly, she goes to Mexico. And there, a strange kind of magic happens.
The parts where astrophysics and medicine were discussed were minor comments, almost like bon mots. That is not to mention the potential thematic possibilities available when your character understands the origin of the universe or the inner workings of the human body. But a deep dive into physics is clearly not what Paulsen has in mind.
My favorite line is when a minor character, the Napa congressman, asks, “Is choice the enemy of commitment?” I love the succinctness of that line. Is choice the enemy of commitment? The obvious answer is yes. If we have too many choices, it makes it harder to commit to one thing. But it also makes sense because our heroine spends 400 or so pages wrestling with committing to her own choices. In this way, the theme of the novel can be reduced to just that one line.
Of course, Paulsen’s beautiful title makes this point much more gracefully. Sarah and Rory and Gabriel and everyone else in the novel, and all of us, even you reading this, are confronting what choices need to be made, and committing to one thing or the other. That is the very nature of the dance of being human.
And it’s a delicate dance. As delicate as a spider’s web.
“Dancing on the Spider’s Web” is available in Napa at Copperfield’s Books and Napa Bookmine.