Perris, California: A Novel

Perris, California: A Novel

by Rachel Stark

Narrated by Alex McKenna

Unabridged — 11 hours, 58 minutes

Perris, California: A Novel

Perris, California: A Novel

by Rachel Stark

Narrated by Alex McKenna

Unabridged — 11 hours, 58 minutes

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Overview

A*glorious debut...it will rouse your deepest well of empathy.”*-Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Good Left Undone

“This novel will live alongside classics of young womanhood.”*-Susan Straight, author of bestsellers Mecca and In the Country of Women

In this unforgettable debut novel, twenty-seven-year-old Tessa, pregnant with her third child and living in a trailer on her mother-in-law's property, encounters the woman she used to love-leading Tessa to question the very foundations of the life she's built


Abandoned first by her father and then her mother, as a girl Tessa is left to live with her abusive stepfather and stepbrother. She survives by finding reserves of strength in herself, and by the surprising, transformative love of another teenage girl, Mel, who sees through Tessa's tough exterior to the vulnerable, scarred, loving woman inside. When she suddenly loses Mel, too, Tessa stumbles into a saving grace of a different kind with Henry and his mama, Angie, becoming a mother and finding herself in a familial existence that somehow carries her into adulthood-until the day she runs into Mel, who has just returned to Perris after years away.

Filled with violence, tragedy, tenderness, longing, and the unvarnished courage of women living in a mostly unseen America, Perris, California is the utterly gripping story of Tessa's journey from trauma to healing, and it introduces us to one of the most indelible female characters since Bone Boatwright in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina or Ruth Langmore in Ozark.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

01/29/2024

Stark debuts with an emotionally charged portrait of two women’s painful family histories and their uneasy reunion in California’s Inland Empire. Tessa Jenson, pregnant with her third child at 27 and struggling to raise two rambunctious young children, runs into her high school friend and lover, Mel, who’s recently returned to town after a decade away. At 16, the girls were broken up by Mel’s mother, who disapproved of their relationship, though it’s Mel whom Tessa feels bitter toward. Now, the women attempt to renew their friendship, which adds to the ongoing tension in Tessa’s marriage with Henry, who knows how much she loved Mel as a girl and whose own mother’s constant presence makes it difficult for Tessa to find her bearings as a parent. Exacerbating those challenges are Tessa’s memories of postpartum depression following her first daughter’s birth, which are triggered by her pregnancy and had to do with her feelings about her own mother. In vivid flashbacks, Stark gradually doles out details of the physical and sexual abuse Tessa and her late mother endured at the hands of her stepfather and his son, deepening the well-developed theme of strained mother-daughter relationships. Fans of Dorothy Allison or Pam Houston ought to seek this out. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Susanna Lea Assoc. (Mar.)

From the Publisher

Advance praise for Perris, California

“An emotionally charged portrait of two women’s painful family histories and their uneasy reunion in California’s Inland Empire . . . Fans of Dorothy Allison or Pam Houston ought to seek this out.” Publishers Weekly

“An extraordinary debut that insists that we can—and must—mend each other.” Kirkus (starred review)
 
“Some stories grab you, shake you to the core, and never let you go, demanding you to stare into the heart of human depravity and resilience. Other stories capture you by stealth, quiet beauty unfolding in ordinary moments: a conversation ’round a table, the unexpected smile of a neighbor, the wind on your face as you run. Harrowing, evocative, and deeply moving, Perris, California does both. Rachel Stark reminds us that in the smallest acts of kindness center the most enormous acts of love. This is a remarkable novel of human beings fully being—where what we do to each other'sits side by side with what we do for each other.” —Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
 
Perris, California is a remarkable, audacious, and truly original debut. Stark’s characters are incandescent in their fierce desire not just for survival but for love and redemption. This novel will live alongside classics of young womanhood by Kaye Gibbons, Helena Maria Viramontes, Maya Angelou, and yes, Dorothy Allison.” —Susan Straight, author of bestsellers Mecca and In the Country of Women
 
“Rachel Stark’s beautiful debut novel is a gripping portrayal of generational trauma suffered by women living in rural poverty. But this heartbreaking story is ultimately one of healing and hope as she reminds us of our capacity for forgiveness and understanding.” —Tracey Lange, author of We Are the Brennans

“Perris, California
is a glorious debut from the magnificent Rachel Stark who writes from the soul when she is not writing from the heart. This is a novel set in the invisible America, the land of hopes and dreams if one happens to be lucky. Tessa has bouts of luck and longing, amidst circumstances out of her control. This is not only a story of trauma and survival, it will rouse your deepest well of empathy and have you rooting for a woman you may have never met. You will know her now, in this dazzling debut.” —Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Good Left Undone

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2024-01-05
Tessa is 27 years old and pregnant with her third child when she runs into her first love, a woman named Mel, and begins to question the life she has built.

Living in a trailer with her husband, Henry, and their children, Preston and Ruby, Tessa feels increasingly smothered by her mother-in-law, Angie, on whose land they reside. Mel's return prompts Tessa to revisit her youth; graphic flashbacks reveal her mother’s abandonment and the harrowing abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather and stepbrother. (Stark’s depiction of those abuses never strays into trauma porn.) The respite Mel’s love offered teenage Tessa was cruelly taken away when Mel left suddenly and Tessa was forced to draw on previously unknown strength to survive. This indirectly leads her into the lives of Henry and Angie and a future filled with love. Adult Tessa's emotional withdrawal from family life exemplifies how trauma can trigger self-sabotage, secrecy, the turning away from those who love us, and the fight-or-flight instinct. The theme of motherhood underpins the novel, specifically the synchronous fragility and resilience of mothers and the hurts done to and by mothers. Caregiving is represented as at once claustrophobic and a source of deep joy: "Honey, tired ain’t something women like you and me get to be. Looking after is what I was built for." In Tessa and Angie’s relationship, Stark captures female solidarity, a shared maternal understanding, and the sacredness of keeping each other's secrets. As Mel’s presence forces Tessa to confront the vast kaleidoscope of her own personhood, the many selves she has inhabited throughout her life, Tessa accepts that she must make peace with what might have been. This agonizingly sad novel nevertheless rejoices in small acts of loving. When Angie observes that "each other is the whole of what we’ve got," Stark offers up a balm to soothe not only Tessa's hurt, but the reader’s.

An extraordinary debut that insists that we can—and must—mend each other.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940159398567
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 03/26/2024
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 1,009,410

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

1992

Angie

It was sometime in the middle of the night when Angie woke to a sharp pain in her chest. She put a hand there. She was waiting to see if it would pass when she heard a tapping on her bedroom window. She moved her hand from her chest and shook Buck’s shoulder. The tapping got louder. “Buck,” Angie whispered. “Buck,
wake up.”
There was the sound of something snapping underfoot outside, and Buck was on his feet. He picked up the flashlight on his night- stand and took his rifle out from under the bed. He and Angie went to the window. He had the light and rifle in hand and ready when he gave the nod to Angie, signaling her to pull back the curtain.
Tessa, Henry’s girl, was standing there squinting into the light. The side of her face was blown out so bad that the skin was pulledtaut across the bridge of her nose and the eye on that side was shiny-wet and pinched shut.
“Jesus,” Angie breathed. She and Buck ran outside to her. The poor thing was leaning up against the house to keep from falling over. She didn’t have shoes on, and her feet were torn up and bleed- ing. She was bent and holding one arm in close with the other. Buck stayed froze to the earth a yard away from the girl while Angie walked to her. Tessa was taking in quick, shallow breaths. Her open eye was big and showing all its white. Angie had seen that same look once before in her neighbor’s colt when it was pinned down and straining against four grown men; its leg was broken in three places after a bad jump, and there wasn’t no coming back from that. Angie walked up to Tessa slow and steady like she’d done with the horse before she put a bullet between its eyes.
“Easy, baby,” she said. Tessa let a sharp exhale out her nose. “It’s alright now, honey. You’re alright.” She looked busted up even worse up close. Worse than any of her boys or Buck had ever been after any schoolyard scrap or bar fight. Angie didn’t let her face show the sick she was starting to feel. “Honey, would it be alright if I have Buck carry you inside so I can help you?”
Tessa made no move or change in expression. Angie slowly reached her hand out and touched the side of Tessa’s face that wasn’t broke. “No one’s gonna hurt you here. You’re safe now. I promise.”
Tessa gave a small nod, and Buck came over. When he lifted Tessa, she let out something between a groan and a gurgle. “Easy with her, Buck,” Angie said.
She had Buck lay her down on the sofa at an angle so the girl would be propped up enough for Angie to get a good look at her. “Where you hurting most, honey?” Angie said. Tessa didn’t speak.

Maybe with the side of her face like that, she couldn’t. “I’m gonna look you over a bit, okay? That way I can help.” Angie got down on her knees and closer to the girl. Tessa had her right arm tucked in like a bent wing. It was hanging separate and heavy from her shoulder joint, the way overcooked meat hangs off a bone. With the way she was breathing shallow and the way they had found her leaning outside, Angie guessed there might be a couple cracked ribs beneath the dislocated shoulder. She wasn’t gonna move her now to check. The girl was hurting bad enough already.
Angie continued looking her over, placing gentle hands on the girl’s body as she went. Her eyes stopped when they hit the pee blooming on the sofa cushion between Tessa’s legs. Tessa’s wide, flat stare finally broke when Angie looked up and met her eye after seeing that she’d wet her pants. Tessa’s lip turned out, and she started a noiseless cry. Angie got up off her knees quick to sweep her mother’s quilt off the family hope chest and wrap it around Tessa before Buck could see what the girl had started crying for. She gently hugged Tessa to her.
“You’re okay now,” she whispered near Tessa’s ear. She felt the girl shaking then. She spoke over her shoulder. “Buck, honey, go get us a big bag of ice and a dish towel, wet with cool water. Bring those pills for your back and something to wash them down with.” Buck nodded. “Be quick, honey, and don’t you let Henry come near that door, not yet. Understand?”
Angie let Henry in after she’d helped the girl into her softest sweat suit. She cleaned up the girl’s face as best she could. She and Henry would take Tessa to the emergency room as soon as the pills kicked in and the girl felt ready to be moved again. She left Henry in the room with Tessa and stood outside the door talking in hushed tones with Buck.

“I think you better go pay Wayne a visit and collect Tessa’s things. She’s going to be staying with us from now on.” Buck nod- ded. “She wants some leather purse from under her bed awful bad. Don’t leave there without it.”
Buck went to wake their two oldest boys, Gordy and Benny, to bring them along. When he came back downstairs, Angie gave him what little information she’d been able to pull from the girl. She kept secret the parts Tessa had made her swear to leave between just them.
“And, Buck, it may be the case we already have a dead body on our hands over there. You do what needs doing, but I think it best if we don’t make it two.”

 
Buck

Wayne’s place was a two-mile straight shot from their ranch as the crow flew, but with the way the dirt roads took them, it was usu- ally about a fifteen-minute drive. That night, Buck got him and his boys there in seven. Thinking about what Angie had told him made his foot heavy.
Buck pounded on the door until he could hear someone coming and then pounded some more.
“Wait a goddamn second,” Buck heard Wayne say from inside as he undid the dead bolt. Soon as Wayne opened the door, Buck gave him a solid blow to the stomach, and Wayne crumpled to the ground. After a ten-second count, Wayne sucked in a deep breath and rolled to his side in a fetal position. “What in the hell you do that for?” he said, coughing.
Buck had known Wayne’s sorry ass for most of his life. They were both born and raised in Perris. They’d gone to grade school together. Wayne had been a smart and weaselly little fuck back then too. He was a drunk now, and he got by in life by cheating or leeching off good people. Buck knew the only reason Wayne had let Tessa stick around after her mama split was for the government check he received on account of her being there. Buck hadn’t imag- ined things were great for Tessa living there with Wayne and his dipshit boy, but he didn’t think the son of a bitch had it in him to allow the girl to be beat halfway to death like that. Wayne’s son had done it this time around, Angie had said, but Wayne had let it happen, and the way Angie had heard it, Wayne had taken a liking to roughing Tessa up in the years since her mama left. Tessa had just never told no one about it. Wayne was smart enough not to get himself caught by taking it too far, the way his son had. Buck wished Tessa would have come to him before she had to get it so bad. He’d’ve put an end to things sooner.
“Where’s Tessa’s room?” Buck said.
“What the fuck you care?” Wayne pushed himself up to sit with his back against the entryway wall.
“You’re talking like a man who’s tired of having his teeth, Wayne.” Buck turned to Benny and Gordy behind him. “Pick him up,” he said. Benny and Gordy lifted Wayne’s short and solid body up from the floor and held him under his armpits. One on each side. Buck gave him another hard punch to the gut. Wayne tried to crumple again, but Buck’s boys, who were strong, grown men now, kept him up. Buck stepped on Wayne’s bare foot and ground the heel of his boot into the bones there. He grabbed Wayne’s collar and jerked him in close. “Where’s her things?”
Wayne let out a groan. Buck stepped off his foot and let him go. Wayne took in a deep breath and shook his head. “Second door on the left. Take her shit. I don’t care. You’re doing me a favor,” he said. A sick, sour, wet cloud of Wayne’s beer breath stuck to Buck’s face like a hot morning fog.
Buck didn’t like Wayne’s face being so close to his. He didn’t like spending time in Wayne’s dirty-ass house neither. He wanted to leave, and Wayne was drawing things out. Buck was trying to keep things from getting too rough. He was trying to show some restraint and set an example for his boys, but he’d had just about as much as he could stand of Wayne’s bullshit, and images of that poor girl’s busted face kept flashing in his mind. If he didn’t teach Wayne a lesson now, he wasn’t sure Wayne’d ever get what was coming to him. The world didn’t seem to work that way. Assholes like Wayne got off scot-free all the time. The way Buck saw it, he had an obligation. He turned to his boys.
“Get them duffel bags out the truck and get her things. Be quick,” Buck said. His boys stood still, knowing that their father had him a temper and that it had gotten the best of him and ended with trouble on more than one occasion. Buck’s need to keep others in line had wound him up in jail twice now, and his boys had suf- fered for it.
“I ain’t going to do nothing stupid. Get,” Buck said. Benny let go. He went over to the other side of Wayne, where Gordy was still holding him, and pulled his brother away by the elbow. Wayne jerked his arm free and tried to straighten himself up. The boys went for the truck.
Buck started to undo the buttons at his wrists. He folded the sleeves of his flannel back in clean, straight lines. Wayne lifted his chin after hiking up his pants and smoothing out the front of his shirt. His face jumped alert like his bowels had just let loose.
“Now hold on a second,” Wayne said. “What did that dumb bitch tell you? She’s a liar, you know. Just like her whore of a mother.” Buck grabbed him by the thick, coarse hair on top of his head and began to drag him toward the back door. Wayne reached up for the hand at his head and held there while he tried to get his feet under him, but Buck was moving too fast. He opened the back slider and threw Wayne down the steps so that he went tumbling over himself onto the dirt porch.
“Get up,” Buck said.
“Now come on,” Wayne said. “I done right by that girl giving her a roof over her head all these years. She ain’t even blood, and I done that.”

“I ain’t going to ask you again. On your feet. Show me some of that tough guy stuff you got. Or do you save that just for little girls?”
“She must’ve told you some real lies to have you out here in the middle of the night like this, Buck. I’m telling you. I ain’t done nothing out of line. Never.”
“She didn’t have to tell me nothing, Wayne. Her broked-up face was enough for me to make the trip. Truth is, I’m glad to have an excuse. I been wanting to pay your sorry ass a visit for a while now.” Wayne opened his mouth to speak again, and Buck began to let him have it. He’d hardly touched Wayne before he was on the ground again.
“Up,” Buck said.
“Wait, wait.” Wayne was on all fours in the dirt trying to crawl away.
“Up, goddammit. I’m gonna teach you a lesson good, so you don’t forget.” Wayne continued to try and scramble away. “It’ll be worse for you on the ground. I can guarantee you that. Get up on your feet like a man.” Wayne acted like he hadn’t heard him and continued his pathetic crawl. It lit Buck up something fierce.
“Suit yourself.” Buck took three quick paces and kicked Wayne in the ribs. Wayne dropped flat on his stomach. Buck reached down for his shoulder and flipped him over on his back so he could get to him better. Buck grabbed ahold of his collar and lifted him enough to throw three hard punches to his face. Wayne was feebly grasping at Buck’s arms when Buck gave him a headbutt that sent Wayne’s neck dropping back limp. Buck felt a hand on his shoulder. “Dad,” Benny said, “I think he’s had enough.” Buck nodded.
He let Wayne fall to the dirt and sat back on his heels to catch his breath. Gordy went to check on Wayne.

“Get your sorry-ass hands off me,” Wayne said. He batted Gordy away but made no move to stand up. Buck knew he was fine. Wayne had probably caught ass-whuppings worse than this plenty of times before. Guys like Wayne, low-life cheats, learned early on how to take a punch. It come with their line of work.
“You had that coming for a long time now, Wayne. You be grateful I got my boys here keeping me from giving you what you deserve. You thank your fuckin’ lucky stars.” Buck stood up. “I’m alright,” he said to his boys, who had moved to stand beside him. “I said I’m alright.” Buck shrugged Benny’s hand off his shoulder. “I ain’t going to do no more. You got her things? The purse?” They nodded. “Good.” Buck sighed. He put his hands on his hips and spat on the ground.
“You have until sunup to get your miserable ass out of the state. If I were you, I’d stop feeling sorry for myself and start pack- ing. Ain’t no talking your way out of this one.” Buck and his boys took a few steps toward the door before Buck turned back.
“Your son had an accident in the hayloft of the barn on Wilkin- son’s old property. I hear he ain’t doing so good. I’d look into it if I were you. And, Wayne, if he’s still breathing when you get to him, he ain’t welcome in this valley no more neither.

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