Violet yearns to be a Hollywood actress in 1940. Even though she is married, she enters and wins the Miss California pageant in Santa Cruz, her home town on California’s northern coast. When her husband, Charles, finds out, he orders her to quit. Afraid of his brutality, she agrees. Weeks later, she can no longer take his abuse and sneaks off to Hollywood with the help of friends, including Ricky Cruz—but Charles drags her home. In 2007, Mari Cruz toils as a waitress but wants more. She has a history degree and knows all of Santa Cruz’s past, especially the amusement park on the boardwalk. Her beloved grandfather worked there as a stunt diver. A college one-night stand left her pregnant and derailed her aspirations. Her daughter’s father, Travis, the son of the town’s mayor, wants nothing to do with either of them.
Sorting through her grandfather’s keepsakes, she finds a picture of him with his arm around a beautiful woman. Listed as “Violet,” she is reported to have committed suicide. Mari volunteers for the local museum and is incensed to learn that the gazebo where her grandparents held their wedding reception is to be torn down to make room for modern condos funded by Travis; she decides to fight back.
Jaeger weaves an interesting story as Mari tries to solve the mystery of Violet’s death. Violet could have fled Charles by staying with the pageant, which offered a screen test. And “paparazzi” wasn’t a term in 1940. The novel showcases the contributions of the Latino population and the few resources available to a battered woman decades ago. The story appeals to me since I spent many summers in Santa Cruz. Except for the abuse scenes, it’s a light read with endearing characters.