Very Good: A Student of History by Nina Revoyr, 2019, 9781617756641.
I was flipping through an older issue of Booklist or Library Journal and lucked out be seeing the review for this. I had missed any pre-pub announcements and, embarrassingly, missed seeing the book on our own new books shelf. For whatever reason I was immediately engaged with the story.
Short version: 32-year-old PhD history student from USC is about a year behind on his thesis. He is hired by an uber-wealthy woman to transcribe 70 years of handwritten journals and falls for a super scheming socialite.
Longer version: Rick Nagano's girlfriend dumped him a year ago and he has gotten no research or writing completed on his thesis concerning community business loans among the Japanese in early California. A friend from the History Department is moving away and recommends him for the 10-hour-a-week transcribing job for Mrs. W--- (her last name is never used). The extra cash for this job will allow Rick to pay his rent and eat. Rick narrates us along the journey.
Rick drives out to a massive estate with a massive mansion and meets Mrs. W---. She is in her 70s, always dressed elegantly, and tart tongued. W--- is the granddaughter of one of modern Los Angeles's founders and oil barons. W--- has always been super rich and, at one point in the novel, Rick discovers W--- is worth about a billion dollars.
This is a novel where money makes a difference. Rick becomes W---'s walker and escort to multiple society events across L.A. He enters a completely different strata of society from growing up an electrician's son and attending Stanford and USC on scholarship funds. W--- mostly associates with just old money like hers. The society events include recent celebrities and millionaires but W--- plays to the men and women with the same old money background as her.
W--- in public is very petty and very private. She verbally cuts down competitors for the spotlight. She never talks about her absent adult children. She makes several vicious comments on immigrants and poor people.
Privately W--- is welcoming to Rick and befriends him. She tours him around the mansion and chats with him over tea on the patio. She encourages Rick to attend USC's law or business schools. Rick protests that it is too late to apply to those schools W--- tells the USC President about Rick (a word from super donor W--- would immediately set Rick into class). W--- also funds an immigration legal group.
Anyhoo. Spoilers await. Rick is kinda driftless, even after getting the job. He cannot concentrate on his thesis and his adviser won't put up with his excuses anymore and won't endorse the 2nd year of a fellowship that keeps Rick afloat. Out of desperation Rick tells his adviser he has access to the records of the super private W--- family. His adviser is a nut for Los Angeles history and she bites.
So, Rick has to try and fake the W--- angle and motivate himself to write his thesis. Instead, Rick falls hard for beautiful socialite Fiona. Rick is self estranged from his family and has only one close-ish friend. He has lost all perspective on what he is doing. He knows he is only a visitor to the uber-rich life but with his Walker's wardrobe (provided by W---) and good looks he can fit in. When chatted up by the talkative Fiona he falls hard.
Fiona has her own agenda and effortlessly pulls Rick into an affair and pushes him to discover personal information that will be damaging to W---. We can see this but Rick cannot. Everything blows up Rick's face. We also saw that coming and greatly enjoyed the journey there.
1. I think adviser should be spelled advisor.