WE RUN THE TIDES
By Vendela Vida
Is there a better way to come of age than in the first-person plural? Teenage stories take well to a “we.” Think of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides,” narrated in an amorphous chorus of male adolescence, all those neighborhood boys speaking in a single voice of shared desire. The teenage “we” bespeaks an anxiety to belong, a craving for group identity that marks others as outsiders — but also a willingness to issue sweeping judgments and proclamations (“Everyone is going, Mom!”). Maybe no one belongs with so much certainty ever again.
“We” is where the heroine begins in “We Run the Tides,” the sixth novel from the Believer co-founder Vendela Vida, and the book follows her as she emerges from this first-person-plural embrace. An eighth grader at a San Francisco girls school in 1984, she bears the unlikely name of Eulabee. “My dad liked a painting of a woman named Eulabee Dix,” she explains in one of the text’s magpie assortment of cultural allusions, this one to an early-20th-century American painter of portrait miniatures. Vida’s Eulabee lives in Sea Cliff, a neighborhood with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. She and her friends walk to school in pleated skirts and middy sailor blouses. They make plans to dress up as the Go-Go’s for Halloween. They call dibs on the boys in a Connecticut school yearbook; they go to the beach in parkas and scramble over rocks between the waves.
“When I say ‘we,’ I sometimes mean the four of us Sea Cliff girls who are in eighth grade at the Spragg School for Girls,” Eulabee explains. “But when I say ‘we,’ I always mean Maria Fabiola and me.” Maria Fabiola is the inevitable Hot Friend, a role that is not strictly about looks (though Maria Fabiola is beautiful, and precocious) so much as charisma and danger. Eulabee says of herself and Maria Fabiola: “Separately we are good girls. We behave. Together, some strange alchemy occurs and we are trouble.”
One day, a man in a white car stops three of the girls on their way to school, and asks the time. The encounter takes place at an unsettled moment: just as high school has appeared on the horizon, and in the wake of a friend’s father’s death by suicide. Eulabee checks her Swatch and says it’s just after 8. “Did you see that?” Maria Fabiola asks, once they’re out of earshot.
A version of events that nobody else saw but that Maria Fabiola goes on to propagate (the man was touching himself, he threatened to return for them later) generates a flurry of attention, and leaves Eulabee an outcast when she declines to take up the party line. Then, in the days that follow, Maria Fabiola briefly vanishes. “We had a difference of opinion about what happened that morning,” Eulabee tells the police who show up at their school. “I’ve never used the phrase ‘difference of opinion’ before and I like how it sounds,” she thinks.
Not by choice, but not without a game sense of daring, Eulabee strikes out on her own, even after her friend returns. “We Run the Tides” tracks her efforts to navigate her own life without a protective band of peers. Vida captures the unstable sensation of early adolescent reality, that period teetering between childhood and young adulthood in which outlandish lies can seem weirdly plausible and basic facts totally alien. Eulabee’s loving, unintrusive parents are an antiques dealer and a nurse who bought their house as a fixer-upper, and their 13-year-old daughter’s awareness of the city’s hierarchies is just dawning. She’s startled to read a news report describing Maria Fabiola as an “heiress.” Meanwhile, she learns that boys call her “Maria Fabulous.” (“Maria Fabulist” comes to mind as another possibility.)
Vida’s first novel, “And Now You Can Go” (2003), also turned on an alarming encounter with a stranger — the possibility of violence, the repercussions rippling across other relationships. The threat in that book was real and starkly rendered, if abortive; here it is a degree more remote. The true dangers in Eulabee’s world are offstage, on the margins of Maria Fabiola’s story, but suggested with a deft touch by Vida. Eulabee’s own attention moves with lifelike vagary, dilating on anxieties and anticipation. Preparing for a concert — listening to records, wrangling permission to attend, buying a not-quite-affordable outfit — is an endless, engrossing project. The concert itself passes in a page and a half. Eulabee finds her way in and out of scrapes that manage to be neither traumatic nor necessarily edifying. She traverses drama large and small with wit. “I don’t care about litter because I am immortal,” she thinks, abandoning a Band-Aid on the ground after chatting with a boy she likes.
Vida’s San Francisco is ramshackle and eccentric, home to heiresses but also tide pools of counterculture backwash. As the city becomes a metonym for tech wealth, its past — like a bygone youth — can seem a territory lost to time. Vida (who grew up in the city, and lives there now) hits this note a bit hard and a bit hastily in the book’s final section, which leaps forward 35 years. Still, the affectionate specificity of the portrait she offers is one of the book’s real pleasures. “The streets of Sea Cliff are no longer ours,” Eulabee narrates in adulthood, near the book’s end, returning to that nostalgic “we.” “Our parents’ generation laments the new money that’s changed the neighborhood, and we and the rest of the world roll our collective eyes.” The real estate may now be far out of reach, but memory holds its own claim.
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