Sex in the City meets Desperate Housewives meets Law and Order. That's how I'd pitch the television version of Christy Yorke's The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club (Penguin Group, August 2005) to a hotshot L.A. producer.
The novel stars Jina Woolridge, a graphic designer living near San Francisco. She shares her home with a behind-the-scenes FBI agent boyfriend and an 11-year-old son who talks to an invisible friend. The supporting cast includes the beautiful but washed-up actress Irene, the struggling writer Alice and the almost-40-year-old virgin Mary.
For nearly 10 years, the four women have been meeting at Zutto's restaurant for sushi, sake and the chance to freely divulge their affairs, insecurities and dreams. But then Alice publishes a tell-all bestseller that catapults their secret lives into the public eye, setting into motion a tale of betrayal and self-discovery that culminates on the rapids of Idaho's Salmon River.
Secret Lives is Yorke's eighth novel, but the first set in Idaho. She lived in California before moving to Boise about 15 years ago, and admits that her political views made it difficult to write about the state.
"I think I avoided this setting because I'm from such a liberal background, and I was afraid I couldn't write sympathetically from a more conservative point of view," she says. "That, ironically, became the real theme of this book ... How to listen to, respect and even sympathize with your adversary ... For this book, I had to go inside the heads of people I don't agree with and find their heart, their conscience, their values, their fears."
To Yorke's credit, the conservative characters in the book are treated as fairly as their left-leaning counterparts. Ellis, for example, is a rugged individualist who has lived along the river for many years with his mail-order bride. He runs a whitewater rafting company with his son, a radical environmentalist determined to save the salmon. Then there are the two Saudi Arabian brothers Naji and Ahman. Naji has fully embraced the American lifestyle and is married to the flamboyant Irene. Ahman makes no secret of his disdain for Western excess and is given to quoting the Quar'an.
Yorke imbues the many people in her novel with such distinct backgrounds and life experiences that they quickly become as familiar as the most popular TV series personalities. As more of the characters' psychological makeups are revealed, they grow more interesting and complex. A few of the plot turns are overly predictable, but the characters' histories drive the story forward in a way that compels the reader to keep turning the pages.
According to the author, the central plot of Secret Lives was inspired by the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde, a Colorado couple who vanished while on a rafting trip. "I loved the mystery of what happened to them," Yorke says, "the titillating idea that one or both of them might have survived." Underpinned by this "ripped from the headlines" drama, the novel proceeds to examine the ramifications of such a tragedy on its victims and everyone around them for decades to come.
As with all of Yorke's novels, this one incorporates elements of the supernatural. She says, "From a tarot card reader to a witch to a sea monster to the myth of the green man to the jinn in this book, I write about many things--relationships, love, fear, envy, hate--but mostly I write about hope. What better thing to hope for than that there is still some magic in the world?"
She continues, "There is a famous and wonderful quote, 'Nothing is too wonderful to be true.' I adamantly believe that. And I'm from California. So what can you expect?" How about an HBO series based on Secret Lives?