Properties of Thirst

Written by Marianne Wiggins
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In this sprawling, beautifully written but oddly constructed novel, World War II tests an individualistic, self-reliant California family in unexpected ways. Rockwell “Rocky” Rhodes’s son, Stryker, who has run off to enlist in the Navy without telling anyone, winds up posted to Pearl Harbor just before the Japanese attack, and there’s no word of him. Rocky’s one-man, occasionally violent war against the L.A. Water Department, which has sucked up the aquifers beneath his ranch, takes a sharp turn when the Interior Department claims part of his property to construct an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Schiff, the federal lawyer assigned to build and administer the camp, realizes his task is legally and morally indefensible and tries to modify the orders he’s been given. He also falls hard for Sunny, Stryker’s twin sister, who’s devoted her life to food and cooking.

The Rockwells, including Rocky’s sister, Cas, who’s raised the twins—Rocky’s French wife having died years before—are larger-than-life characters who seem capable of just about any physical task, so you want to know what they’ll tackle next. The brilliant, evocative prose generally succeeds at carrying the reader through lengthy back story, as with Sunny’s culinary education during a trip to France at age twelve. But the tone, with authorial commentary, frequent italics for emphasis, and at times gratuitous use of French (often ungrammatical, to boot), can be intrusive and annoying.

Meanwhile, the internment-camp narrative, which focuses on the prisoners to start, pulls back to concentrate on Schiff’s and the Rhodes family’s reaction, a puzzling transformation that underlines how parts of the novel might have stood deletion. Then too, the romance subplot, somewhat predictable, feels hit-and-miss.

I find Properties of Thirst engaging, at times compelling, a vivid portrayal of an era, though the disparate elements mar the overall effect.