The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, a debut novel by Jessica Anya Blau set in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, is half memoir and half fiction, and an unusually harmonious blend of the two. For those curious to discover which half is which, you’ll get a chance when Blau comes to Chaucer’s Books to discuss her work next week.
The story takes place during the summer after the protagonist’s 14th birthday. Jamie is a middle-class kid in middle-class surroundings, but her family is anything but ordinary. To begin with, Jamie’s Jewish-a running gag throughout the novel, as the parents of Jamie’s friends attempt to tolerate her family’s faith with varying degrees of success. Religious conflict isn’t a large part of the book, however, as much of the tension arises from Jamie’s hippie parents and their unconventional lifestyle, one that includes plenty of naked swim parties.
The novel is loosely based on Blau’s life and the lives of her friends and acquaintances, but she said the laidback atmosphere of Southern California in the ’70s is what she primarily wanted to capture. “Summers were unscheduled, hanging-out-at-the-beach time,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There wasn’t this sort of manic training session that people seem to be putting their kids through now. People were free to think and explore and figure things out.” And that’s exactly what Jamie does, while experiencing a first boyfriend, a sisterly rivalry, and her mother’s intrusive attempts to understand her.
Much of the novel will be familiar to any reader who has experienced puberty, but Blau has also included details that will be particularly appealing to Santa Barbara residents. Blau grew up “right around the corner from the Cathedral Oaks Tennis Club,” now renamed the Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club, and knows the region well. “I hope it feels authentic to people who know the feel of Santa Barbara,” she said.
Her affection for the area comes through in the novel; Blau’s characters are lovingly drawn, but they wouldn’t be nearly so appealing out of the environment Blau has imagined for them. Santa Barbara is not overly idealized, however, and Blau stays away from too much overt nostalgia. Jamie’s problems are real, and her reactions mostly realistic.
Part of that authenticity is probably due to the autobiographical aspect of Swim Parties, although Blau said the events that take place in Jamie’s life are actually based on a variety of people. “I took a lot of things and just threw them all at Jamie,” she said. Some incidents in the novel are based on truth but are fictionalized just enough to protect both the innocent and the not-so-innocent.
Some novelists who use their own lives as inspiration face the problem of running out of juicy details to use, and follow-up novels can be difficult. Blau, however, says it’s not a problem. “I’m working on another novel,” she said, “and I’m about 300 pages into it. It’s a lot different from this novel. It starts in 1939 and goes up to the ’80s so far-another family story, but a little more complex.” There’s no word on whether this next novel has any connection to Santa Barbara, but any setting Blau uses will be rendered with care. “I like going into that sort of meditative state where I’m just floating a bit,” she said. “I enjoy writing anything.” It’s likely readers will enjoy anything she writes; Blau is a charming new voice in fiction.
Jessica Anya Blau will discuss and sign copies of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties at Chaucer’s Books on Thursday, June 19, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 682-6787 or visit chaucers.booksense.com.