Highway of life

Lucy Clark
December 15, 2007 11:00pm

HOW does a girl who grew up in a dreary communal flat in the Soviet Union come to be a multi-millionaire bestselling author driving
a bright yellow Mustang across the vast breadth of the US?

It sounds like the stuff of one of Paullina Simons’ novels – a character on a huge journey, an impressive arc of experience that encompasses much that is life-changing and fascinating.
It’s also the question Simons asked herself as she stood on the edge of the Badlands of South Dakota researching her latest novel Road to Paradise (HarperCollins $32.95)

Her eighth enormous novel – which follows in the lovely long and fat summer read tradition of Tully and The Bronze Horseman and The Girl in Times Square – is both a coming-of-age story and a road story.

Two former best friends (now there’s a story that’s sure to unfold) Shelby and Gina take a trip cross-country and into a landscape they never could have imagined.

It was meant to be a trip of symbiosis: the driver, Shelby, taking off from New York in the Mustang, a graduation present from her aunt, needing company and financial assistance on a journey in search of the mother she never knew; and Gina, needing to get to Eddie, love of her life, across the country in California.

But when the girls break their own golden rule of not picking up any hitchhikers – under any circumstances – and let Candy into their car and their lives, their world is rocked on many different levels.

Simons says she always wanted to write a coming-of-age novel, and certainly the coming of age that Gina and Shelby experience in Road to Paradise is dramatic.

The mysterious Candy, who appears to be on the run from something frightening, appears on the face of it to be an unlikely character: a girl who grew up with her Trappist monk father in an abbey until the age of 12, knowing only hymns and Bible references, but who was then forced into prostitution and under-age pornography by her violent stepfather, who she is now running from.

Yet Simons somehow makes Candy seem real, and makes you believe it is possible.

Simons slips up, at times, when the dialogue between these child/adults is just too sophisticated to be believed, but she seems to nail all the jumbled and unsure emotions nascent adults of that age possess.

The narrative engine that drives the plot onwards across the States is that Candy has taken something her stepfather needs back at any cost, and he enlists the help of truck drivers and their citizens-band radio to track the bright yellow and very conspicuous car across the country.

So in one way it’s a menacing mega-chase scene, with the girls keeping off the Interstates and taking the back roads avoiding the trucks, and here Simons’s research – in which she felt compelled to take the journey she had her characters undergo – pays off hugely in bringing America alive on the page.

On the way she explores ideas of friendship, betrayal, growing up, taking care of others, religion and the primordial yearning for the absent mother. Simons pulls you along so effortlessly for the ride.

Source: The Courier Mail