Carolyn See, a memoirist and novelist whose writings captured the untamed world of California, where she spent her life, and her accumulated wisdom on moxie in the face of adversity, died July 13 at a hospice center in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 82.
She had congestive heart failure, said a daughter, Lisa See, the best-selling author of novels including “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” (2005) and “China Dolls” (2014).
Dr. See was the author of 10 books, encompassing fiction and nonfiction, and was co-author of several more. For 27 years until her retirement in 2014, she was a regular book reviewer for The Washington Post. But her earliest days as a writer, when she was a young mother and divorcée, augured little of the success that was to come.
“When I started to write I was relatively old, and lived in California. So I was the wrong sex, wrong age, wrong coast,” she wrote in an essay. “Luckily I was too ignorant to know it.”
Dr. See followed the old writing dictum: She wrote what she knew. She wrote about California and the people it cultivated and attracted with its air of promise. By the end of her life, she was widely celebrated as a literary guide to a state that many outsiders mistake for a fantasy world existing only in their imaginations.
“Los Angeles doesn’t make raincoats and soup,” she told The Post in 1986, “it makes things like movies and bombs, which are good and bad dreams. It’s the perfect place to write from.”
In her best-known novel, “Golden Days” (1987), she followed a group of Californians — she described them as “a race of hardy laughers, mystics, crazies” — who start a new life in Topanga Canyon after a nuclear armageddon.
It is not a dark book, as the synopsis might suggest. The bomb was “going to happen,” the narrator, Edith Langley, observes, and when it did, people were relieved of the burden of “worrying about whether it was going to happen.” In the bomb’s wake, the survivors create a world that is better than the one that was destroyed.
“The sophistication of thought in the novel is considerable, cool and Californian,” observed the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, reviewing the novel in The Post. “No harm in that, unless it leaves the book underestimated by critics who should know better. . . . On these firm foundations in the California earth, she has built a Watts Tower of a book, fragile, brilliant and surprising.”
Dr. See’s childhood, which she recounted in the memoir “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America” (1995), helped explain her fascination with the nuclear threat. Her father, who she said represented much of what was fun and carefree in her life, left the family shortly after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
“Personal and universal disaster were forever one,” she told The Post.
In large part, the memoir chronicles the cascading generational effects of alcoholism. But Dr. See did not indulge in harsh judgment. An uncle, known for “unfurling his napkin through a candle flame on Thanksgiving and setting himself on fire,” might have been written off as a drunk. But Dr. See presented him in all his human complexity. He was a World War I flying ace, wounded in battle and never the same after his exposure to mustard gas.
Her father, for all his faults, had lost his mother as a youth when she fatally shot herself. Her mother, whom Dr. See described as having an “even disposition; evenly bad,” had been orphaned.
Reviewing the memoir for the Chicago Tribune, writer and critic Penelope Mesic said the book was “as intimate and stylistically informal as a chance phone call from an old friend.”
Carolyn Penelope Laws was born in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 13, 1934. Her mother kicked her out at age 16, she told Contemporary Authors, and she lived briefly with her father, a journalist whom she credited with sparking her interest in writing.
She worked as a waitress and enrolled in Los Angeles City College, later completing her undergraduate studies at California State University at Los Angeles. She was twice married and divorced, first to Richard See and then to Tom Sturak, before receiving a PhD in American literature from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1963.
Dr. See’s first novel, “The Rest Is Done With Mirrors,” set among UCLA graduate students, was published in 1970. She wrote a nonfiction book about pornography, “Blue Money” (1974), before publishing “Mothers, Daughters” (1977), which she described as a “sorrowful woman’s book” that came in the wake of her second divorce.
Her novel “Rhine Maidens” (1981), a mother-daughter story, was followed by “Golden Days.”
Her nonfiction books include “Making A Literary Life” ( 2002), an advice book for writers. Under the nom de plume Monica Highland, she co-authored several novels with her companion of more than 25 years, John Espey, and her daughter, Lisa See. Espey died in 2000.
See, a daughter from her first marriage, lives in Los Angeles. Other survivors include a daughter from her second marriage, Clara Sturak of Santa Monica; a stepmother, Lynda Laws of Cardiff, Calif.; a brother; three grandsons; and a great-grandson.
Dr. See taught at institutions including UCLA and reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, as well as for The Post.
“For 27 years Carolyn See has brought fierce intelligence, wit and panache to the book columns of The Washington Post, as well as a writing style that is hers alone,” Jonathan Yardley, the longtime Post book critic, remarked on her retirement.
“She’s brought a useful West Coast perspective to this East Coast newspaper,” he continued, “and she’s drawn our readers’ attention to innumerable books about which they might never have heard.”
Looking back on her life, Dr. See wrote in her memoir that “there’s something to be said for free fall, the wild life.”
“It’s ruined us,” she remarked, “but it’s helped to save us too. It’s given us our stories; and made us who we are.”
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