Monday, September 25, 2023
A few weeks ago, I received an email from David Lat's substack Original Jurisdiction. The email contained an interview with Yale Law professor Amy Chua, known to some the Tiger Mom for her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. David's interview, however, centered around Amy's newest book--a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s in San Francisco. The novel, entitled The Golden Gate, was published last week.
Intrigued, I requested an advanced copy of the book on NetGalley, which I received. David said he consumed the book in two days, an impressive feat for a dad of two young kids. As the mom of two young kids who is also teaching first year legal writing, I was skeptical that I could finish the book in a timely manner. Fortunately (for this review) and unfortunately (for the rest of my life), I had a few days of not feeling well. This allowed me to cuddle on the couch with my cats and my kindle and devour The Golden Gate in three days.
At its most basic level, The Golden Gate is a double murder mystery--jumping between the tragic death of a young girl in the 1930s and the murder of a notable politician in 1944. Both deaths occurred at the Claremont Hotel. But the novel is so much more than simply a murder mystery--it is a thoughtful, meticulously researched, look at many of the complicated issues of that time (and the present) like race and racial identity, prejudice, gender, social status, mental health, politics, and policing practices. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Al Sullivan (or Alejo Gutiérrez), the detective assigned to solve the second murder, and Mrs. Bainbridge, the matriarch of a wealthy San Francisco family. Mrs. Bainbridge's granddaughters are implicated in the murder, and her narration comes through in a deposition and a later factual narrative that she wrote for the district attorney.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story #nospoilers, so let me tell you what I loved about the book. In short, nearly everything.
First, it was a gripping story. I definitely wanted to figure out whodunnit, and the author certainly kept me guessing.
Second, the writing and research was phenomenal. While I expect a Yale Law professor to meticulously research her academic writing, I don’t think that I was prepared for the level of careful detail I saw in a novel. I highly recommend reading the author note at the end of the book for additional resources and further context about the story. But what made the writing and research extra impressive was how accessible it was to the average reader. I would recommend this book both to lawyer friends and to friends who just like a good mystery. The most lawyerly part of the novel was a brief discussion about incorporation and the exclusionary rule, and even that section was accessible to nonlawyers.
Third, the author addressed controversial, complex topics in extremely thoughtful ways. Her characters were complex—there were few overt “good guys” and “bad guys.” In fact, my opinion of the characters morphed as I read the book. Her characters dealt with difficult questions. Perhaps the most poignant for me was Detective Sullivan’s complex approach to his identity. I appreciated how the topic was personal to the author—it is personal to me as well.
This wouldn’t be a good review if I didn’t point out something that could have been improved. Although I am a bit hard pressed to identify a defect, I will say that the last 25% of the novel dragged a bit (until I got to about 90% finished).
Thank you Netgalley and the publishers for the free e-ARC, and thank you Amy Chua for an excellent read!