The Golden Gate: A Novel

By Amy Chua; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Wealth and status have failed to shield the Bainbridge family from tragedy and madness.

On a January afternoon in 1930, eight-year-old Iris Stafford falls down a seven-story spiraling laundry chute in the Claremont Hotel during a game of hide-and-seek with her younger sister Isabella. Her broken body falls into a pile of laundry in the basement. Her mother, Sadie Bainbridge Stafford, who supposedly was playing tennis while her daughters were playing hide-and-seek, is unhinged with grief.

In 1944, as San Francisco’s East Bay booms with ship building and war-related industries, two attempts to murder Presidential hopeful Walter Wilkinson are made at the Claremont Hotel. The second attempt is successful.

After the first attempt, the hotel management reached out to Berkeley Police Detective Al Sullivan. He’s a welcome visitor at the hotel after he stopped a rich young man from skipping out on a $200 unpaid bill. On the night of Wilkinson’s murder, he’s having a drink in the hotel bar.

After the first murder attempt, Sullivan and the hotel manager find Wilkinson in formal dress clothes looking pale but alive in Room 602. He tells them that a shabbily dressed young man — “a Communist” — with a foreign accent shot at him.

Sullivan tells the manager to move him to a new room in a different wing of the hotel. He stations a police officer outside the room and tells him not to move.

Hours later, as Sullivan is reporting in to Police Chief Greening, a second report that Wilkinson has been murdered comes in. Wilkinson had apparently left his new room saying that he had forgotten something in his old room. The police officer stayed put outside the new room.

Wilkerson’s body was discovered spread face up on the bed, his clothes pulled down to his ankles exposing his lower body and his mouth filled with random objects — a pen, cigarettes, a small bar of soap, crumpled stationery, among other things.

A variety of puzzling things are found in Room 602: a thread of yellow silk, an old baby doll similar to one that the two Bainbridge girls had in 1930, and a piece of carved Chinese jade that had been stuffed in his mouth with other random items.

A hotel employee reports seeing a beautiful young woman that she’s seen having tea often at the hotel in the hallway outside Room 602.

Alameda County District Attorney Diarmuid Doogan is convinced that one of the three Bainbridge girls — twins Cassie and Nicole or their cousin Isabella — is responsible for Wilkerson’s murder. Doogan pressures their grandmother Genevieve Bainbridge to tell him which.

Author Amy Chua reveals her story from the alternating perspectives of Mrs. Bainbridge’s written deposition and Sullivan’s investigation.

In the process, she juxtaposes the privileged white world of money and status enjoyed by the Bainbridge women with the poverty and racism that the part Mexican, part Jewish, part-Dust Bowl Okie world Sullivan grew up in.

Born Alejo Gutierrez, Sullivan took his mother’s name to avoid the racism that surrounds him. He gets an education at the University of California, Berkeley, where his fellow students joke that he got in by mistake.

His maternal grandfather is serving a life sentence for shooting his own father. Sullivan describes his family as “generations of suspects.” He becomes a cop because cops aren’t suspects; they are the ones who do the suspecting. “That goes double for detectives. We’re the ones who can even suspect the cops.”

Chua has created a fascinating setting for her story: From the abject poverty of the Depression to the boom of ship building and provisioning during the war years. The Golden Gate Bridge opens in 1937. Famous names are dropped like sequins on a ball gown: Madame Chiang Kai-Sheck, architect Julia Morgan and railroad executives Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Henry Huntington.

There are moments when this story seems tangled and padded with seemingly unrelated historical information. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating story of a city and families in transition.

THE GOLDEN GATE was nominated for a Best First Novel by an American Author Award in the 2024 Edgar Awards.

If books set in California with a historical twist interest you, you might want to check out BACK TO THE GARDEN by Laurie R. King.

The Author: Amy Chua (1962 – )

Amy Chua is the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

She is an internationally bestselling author of several non-fiction titles, including her 2011 memoir BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER, a memorial of raising children in a strict Confucianist way, which was a runaway international bestseller that has been translated into over 30 languages.

Chua graduated magna cum laude from both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After practicing on Wall Street for a few years, she taught at Duke Law School for seven years before joining the Yale Law School faculty in 2001. She taught J.D. Vance during his studies at Yale Law School and persuaded him to write his memoir, HILLBILLY ELEGY which became a best-selling book and a film starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close.

She is married to Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld. They have two daughters, Sophia and Louisa.

THE GOLDEN GATE is her first novel.

#thegoldengate  #amychua  #jeannettehartman

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