One person’s introduction to elite strata of Los Angeles society
Rick Nagano is a graduate student in the history department at USC, struggling to make rent on his South Los Angeles apartment near the neighborhood where his family once lived. When he lands a job as a research assistant for the elderly Mrs. W—, the heir to an oil fortune, he sees it at first simply as a source of extra cash. But as he grows closer to the iconoclastic, charming, and feisty Mrs. W—, he gets drawn into a world of privilege and wealth far different from his racially mixed, blue-collar beginnings.
Putting aside his half-finished dissertation, Rick sets up office in Mrs. W—’s grand Bel Air mansion and begins to transcribe her journals — which document an old Los Angeles not described in his history books. He also accompanies Mrs. W— to venues frequented by the descendants of the land and oil barons who built the city. One evening, at an event, he meets Fiona Morgan — the elegant scion of an old steel family — who takes an interest in his studies. Irresistibly drawn to Fiona, he agrees to help her with a project of questionable merit in the hopes he’ll win her favor.
I picked this up on a whim. I hadn’t read any of Nina Revoyr’s previous novels, so had no idea what to expect from A Student of History. What I found was a very interesting and engaging novel about the social divisions and dynamics in contemporary Los Angeles.
The main character in A Student of History is a PhD student whose work is floundering. He’s lost focus, eking out a life by doing just enough research and writing to not lose his funding, and keep his advisor from booting him out of the program. Money is always tight, so when a friend proposes that he takes over her job working for a reclusive scion of one of the city’s founding families, he accepts.
What follows is an engaging glimpse of Los Angeles high society: populated by people of unimaginable wealth and influence, yet limited conscience. Rick doesn’t belong in this world. He knows this, and yet he is quickly drawn into Mrs. W—’s confidence. Transcribing her journals, he’s given just a tiny look at certain key events of Los Angeles history. He does more digging on the side, and learns more about how integral Mrs. W—’s family was in building and developing the city and its environs. He learns more about how people at this level operate, and how they interact with others of similar station as well as the rest of the city and population. His investigations end up getting him entangled with existing rivalries and mysteries of the rich.
Despite drawing close to his employer — who seems to see him both as a confidante, a project or charity case, and maybe a surrogate son — Rick can’t help but think of how he can leverage his job and access for his own ends. Should he try to learn more, gain greater access to exploit for his own research? Or is there a way he can establish a foothold in this elite world? Meanwhile, can he navigate the agendas of the people he meets along the way? The novel builds to a satisfying conclusion.
A Student of History is a very good novel. Revoyr’s prose is excellent, and I was quickly drawn into the story, and carried along by the author’s writing. Her characters are three-dimensional, realistic and interesting. A fascinating look at the monied elite of LA, and the altogether different (sometimes contradictory) codes by which they live.
Nina Revoyr’s A Student of History is out now, published by Akashic Books (who have also published the author’s other four novels). Shortly after starting this novel, I went out and bought Southland, which I’ll be reading very soon.