Los Angeles Review of Books
"Revoyr's latest noir tells a story that's somewhere between Sunset Boulevard and the darker regions of The Great Gatsby...Revoyr is a subtle observer of human foibles and social structures, and the result is one of the most insightful, and the most entertaining books of the year."
Literary Hub, one of Lit Hub's 50 Favorite Books of 2019
"A Student of History is full of research, detail, lush descriptions, and visual place-setting. [Revoyr's] a fiction writer with an eye for reality set in a dream-like world, often in her home city of Los Angeles."
"Any Nina Revoyr novel is a cause for celebration, and her latest, A Student of History, is assured and marvelous, an absorbing rags among riches tale about a broke USC grad student who finds himself swept off his feet by Los Angeles's insular, powerful .01% class. It's a contemporary novel that feels like an instant classic, with the wry tragedy of The House of Mirth, the sinister glamour of Sunset Boulevard, and a fresh, original point of view."
"With a nod to Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby, Rick Nagano is Nick Carraway and young Pip rolled into one...Lambda Award–winner Revoyr focuses on the impact of race in the construct of class and society, and how there are some doors that will always remain closed."
"Nina Revyor's new novel, A Student of History, continues the tradition of the Los Angeles oil novel, but steers it in a new direction."
Rain Taxi Review of Books
"With her two Walter Mosley-like giftsimpeccable narrative pacing and masterful command of Los Angeles' intricate, evolving dynamics of race and classNina Revoyr's LA novels convincingly capture the lifespan of Los Angeles as a major city, none more gracefully than A Student of History."
New York Journal of Books
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 journalswhich 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 Morganthe elegant scion of an old steel familywho 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.
A Student of History explores both the beginnings of Los Angeles and the present-day dynamics of race and class. It offers a window into the usually hidden world of high society, and the influence of historic families on current events. Like Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby, it features, in Rick Nagano, a young man of modest means who is navigating a world where he doesn't belong.
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It started for the same reason that so many other things did then, because of my need for money. I was a graduate student in history at USC, two years past my final seminar, lost somewhere in an unwieldy dissertation whose end was still nowhere in sight. I'd met my friend Janet at a café near campus — she was moving to San Francisco the next week with her architect girlfriend — worrying aloud, as I often did, about how to stretch my funds for the month.
Janet's hazel eyes lit up and she leaned across the table. "I have a job for you, if you want it," she said.
I paused for a moment before I answered. Theoretically, I had it good. Besides the $12,000 stipend I got from the university, I'd won a prestigious $10,000 fellowship from a foundation that supported research in American history. This had freed me from having to work as a teaching assistant, which was — although no one said so — the only money-making effort that was sanctioned by our advisors, who believed that anything besides teaching or scholarship was beneath our intellectual station. But the truth was, it was hard to live in Los Angeles on twenty-two grand a year — hard not only practically, but also emotionally, when guys I'd gone to college with were making huge salaries in law or finance; and the Westside was crawling with twenty-six-year-old tech millionaires; and the real estate boom had pushed prices to dizzying heights, making those who couldn't afford to go along for the ride feel worthless and embarrassed. My small apartment ran me $1,500 a month — a much harder nut to swallow after Chloe moved out — which left another three hundred and change for food, gas, car insurance, utilities, and anything else I needed to live. And unlike some of my classmates, I didn't have parents who could help.
"Well, what is it?" I asked finally, surprised by the eagerness I felt. It was like I'd suppressed pangs of hunger until an unexpected offer of food made me realize how ravenous I was. The day before, I'd spent two hours going through my old books, trying to figure out what I could get for them on Craigslist or eBay, and whether it would be enough to make up the money I needed for rent.
"It's my job," said Janet, grinning. "With the lady in Bel Air. She just asked me to help her find a replacement."
I vaguely remembered that Janet had done something, maybe secretarial, for some rich woman up in the hills. I hadn't paid attention because it was so far outside of my realm, and because Janet didn't really talk about her gig. She was in the history department too, but more cheerful and well-adjusted than any other graduate student I knew. Maybe that was why it wasn't surprising that she was leaving the USC orbit to complete her dissertation in a more glamorous locale. Her departure had been received with the mixture of wonder and envy that an escapee always elicits from those still trapped in the asylum. The fact that her dissertation — about some obscure counterrebellion movement during the French Revolution — seemed to be going well just made the rest of us more jealous.
"Well, what do you do?" I asked. Then, remembering my manners: "Thanks for thinking of me."
"It's typing, mostly," Janet answered, but her tone was so enthusiastic that she might have said swimming with dolphins. "Mrs. W — kept journals for decades, and she hired me to transcribe them. Over a thousand pages, all handwritten. I just got to page two hundred a couple of weeks ago."
"W —," I repeated. The name sounded familiar. I realized that I'd seen it on a building on campus. It might also have been on a wing at the Natural History Museum.
"Yes, Marion W —," Janet said, sipping her coffee.
"She's in her seventies now."
"Is it the same W — as the science building?" Janet nodded. "Yup, same one. Her family was prominent in the early days of Los Angeles. Her grandfather came out to California in the late 1800s. He helped found a couple of the fancier suburbs, so she's actually one of the street people."
"The street people?" I said, picturing men in torn jackets on sidewalks during the Depression, holding tin cups out unsteadily to passersby.
"You know — Canfield, Whittier, Doheny, W —. The streets in Beverly Hills, which were named for the original families."
"Oh," I said, feeling utterly stupid. "How did you find her?"
"She found me. She asked the dean for a reference, and I guess he mentioned my name. She's really attached to USC — her family's had a seat on the board for three generations, and I have a feeling she still gives a lot of money. According to the dean, Mrs. W — wanted a history grad student specifically. She says we have a greater respect and understanding of how the world works than the flakes in the English department."
"Well, that's true," I agreed, trying to take this all in. A rich lady who'd kept a thousand-page journal by hand. This sounded about as exciting as watching a car get an oil change. Plus I didn't like the idea of what amounted to secretarial work. But the truth was I needed the money.
"You should totally do it, Rick," Janet said brightly.
"The work is easy. Twenty-five dollars an hour, ten hours a week. It's not great, but it beats working in the dining hall, and the stories are kind of interesting. Only ..." A shadow passed over her face, a single small cloud in her otherwise sunny demeanor.
"Well, she's kind of particular. She keeps herself busy — she's involved with a couple of museums and hospitals, a fancy women's group. But she seems isolated just the same. Her husband died like forty years ago, and I'm not sure she sees her kids much. She's a strong personality, and yet there's something nice there too. I don't know. All that time alone ... it's not good for anyone, you know?"
I nodded absently, not really paying attention. In my mind, I was doing calculations. Twenty-five dollars times ten hours was two hundred and fifty a week, or another thousand a month. If I started next week, I could make my rent this month. And the work itself did sound easy — I was a fast typist, could read all kinds of writing from the work I'd done for my father's business in high school. Sure, this woman's life was totally foreign to me, but that might make it interesting. Maybe I'd learn something about LA history — I was, after all, an historian — although stupidly, with what I realize now was the particular arrogance of the overeducated and underemployed, I didn't believe that there was anything the wealthy could teach me. This easy dismissal, this lack of openness to nuance and possibility, might have had something to do with why I wasn't a better scholar.
It definitely had something to do with my failure to hear the hitch in Janet's voice, the warning about Mrs. W — being particular. Given Janet's general optimism, I should have taken notice of her sudden concern. But I didn't; all I thought about was my own burden being lifted.
The next morning, when I called the number that Janet had given me, I was surprised by the voice on the other end.
"2732," a young woman said cheerily, as if she were operating an old-time switchboard.
"Uh, could I speak to Mrs. W —, please?"
"Who is this?"
"This is ... She doesn't know me. This is Rick Nagano.
I got her name and number from —"
"Oh, yes!" she broke in. "You're Miss Janet's friend! Mrs. W — is expecting you. Please come at two o'clock."
It took me a moment to answer. "Two o'clock — today?"
"Yes, she's anxious to get back to work; she's been upset because Miss Janet is leaving." The voice had a hint of an accent. Was this a maid? A personal assistant? If so, then why did Mrs. W — need me?
"But I was thinking ... I wasn't expecting ... today, I have to ..."
"Do you have the address?" she pressed on cheerfully, as if I hadn't spoken.
"No, Janet ... Miss Janet said that —"
"Okay, well here it is." She recited a house address and a woman's first name. She gave detailed directions to help me navigate the winding Bel Air streets. "When you get to Jessica Street," she said, "you'll see a big gate with a W on it. Press the buzzer and we'll open the gate. Once you drive through, there will be houses on either side. They all belong to Mrs. W —." She paused to make sure I got it. "Just keep going on the same road until it winds to the top of the hill. The big house set back with nothing around it, that's where Mrs. W — lives."
"And will you be there?" I asked, still not knowing who you was, just latching on to what seemed like a friendly presence.
"I'll be there at some point. I'm Lourdes, by the way. I'll help you fill out the necessary paperwork."
I wondered, but didn't ask, what the paperwork was. "How will I know I've found the right place?" I asked.
Lourdes laughed brightly. "Oh, you'll know."
At twelve forty-five I left my apartment and drove to Bel Air. It was a gorgeous January day — the sky was clear and blue, the temperature was in the sixties, the warmth undercut by a slight delicious chill, the heart of LA winter. I'd had to rearrange my schedule — I was supposed to have lunch with another grad student to mark the start of the new semester, and then meet with my advisor, Professor Rose. Theoretically, I had planned to give my advisor the next draft chapter of my dissertation, but in reality I had nothing new, not a single line worth showing. In two years I'd produced about forty usable pages — two chapters — but then had lost my way. I'd like to claim that this slowdown had something to do with my other loss of that time, but the truth was that Chloe had left me in the middle of this dry spell and couldn't be blamed for it. My problem wasn't writer's block, which implies that something's there that just needs to be released. It was simpler than that. I had nothing to say. Nothing new or important, anyway, because there certainly was something there, maybe not ideas or content or logical thought, but the specter of the project itself, which lay frustratingly out of reach during the day when I sat at my desk and tried to grasp it, but awoke at night and seemed to fly all around me, as mysterious and elusive and vaguely threatening as a group of circling bats.
When I had my infrequent but uncomfortable meetings with Professor Rose, I felt the weight of her disappointment. She was the best-known scholar in the history department — the preeminent historian of twentieth-century California, author of several books that had achieved a measure of popular success, and frequent guest on the cable news channels when they needed an expert to place a current incident in a larger historical context. Getting her to chair my committee had been somewhat of a coup, a cause for envy among the other grad students. But when month after month passed and the seeming brilliance of my initial research ideas fizzled into nothing, I could feel that I'd become a burden to her. That morning, when I called and pleaded a family emergency, she didn't sound disappointed. She seemed a bit relieved, and so was I.
I headed north on Fairfax to Sunset, and then drove west on that winding boulevard through the clubs and restaurants of West Hollywood, the eight-story-tall advertisements on the sides of hotels, past the palm tree–lined streets of Beverly Hills. At the appointed intersection, I turned right into the mouth of a canyon. Immediately I was enveloped in green — the bushes and trees here were so abundant and full that it was as if I'd driven into a forest. The temperature dropped five degrees. The properties close to Sunset were bigger than any I'd ever stepped foot in, but as I wound my way through the narrow canyon and up into the hills, they got even more ornate, so that at some point they stopped being houses — at least by any definition I understood — and instead became estates. The walls of vegetation hid some of the homes entirely, but others were on display, built imposingly on overlooks, including one that had, in its own designated space, a futuristic-looking silver helicopter. I passed over the first set of hills and found even more behind them, a wide, complex range with little valleys and peaks, much of it undeveloped. I'd had no idea, looking at them from their base, that the Hollywood Hills were so vast. My only real experience of them had been the hike up Runyon Canyon, two miles up on the front part of the range. But farther back in the hills was an entirely different world, a private, lush, green LA hidden from the rest of the city. At the designated street, I turned left, and now I could see the ocean. The winding road grew narrower and seemed to go on forever, and I was just starting to think that I might have gone too far when I saw the gate that Lourdes had mentioned. This was definitely no regular iron gate. It was made of some expensive metal — could it really be gold? — and anchored in heavy stone pillars on either side, which in turn were encased in ten-foot walls. There was a W in curling cursive on the front of the gate. To the left, a small box with a speaker and number pad. I punched the button, heard a buzz, and the gate drew open.
Within the gate I saw more houses, set farther apart along the rolling hillside. But it felt different now, like I'd driven into a new country. All the way up the canyon, the hills had been green from the winter rains, but inside the gates, everything was even brighter, cleaner, as if the ever-present filter of LA smog was not permitted on the premises. The most colorful flowers I'd ever seen — orange, purple, yellow, red — lined the road on both sides. Here were two waving men on bicycles — residents? employees? — and then huge trees overhanging either side of the road. A peacock strutted out in front of me and spread his glorious tail; then he drew himself in and continued on his way. There were other animals grazing in the distance — llamas? goats? — as well as a rabbit that scurried alarmingly right in front of my car. The road narrowed and the trees drew closer together, and then finally I was in the open again. In front of me now, set off by itself on a little rise, stood the biggest house I'd ever laid eyes on.
In articles about the W — family, and in Mrs. W —'s own journals, the house — formally known as Casa del Cielo — is described as a mansion. In my mind, it was more like a castle. Built of white stones that had been imported from Italy, layered with turrets and parapets that might have hidden armed sentinels, it looked impenetrable, unapproachable; I half-expected it to be surrounded by a moat. The gardens — which even in mid-January appeared to be in full bloom — were expansive and lush, and reminded me of the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena; later I'd learn they'd been designed by the same man. In the open garage, itself bigger than most houses, I spied two large, expensive-looking cars — a Bentley, I learned later, and a Rolls Royce. To the right of the house, there was a dark-blue pool that was fed by a stone fountain with an angel atop it. Water poured from the angel's mouth, and the angel itself, in her muteness, looked at me with bright, desperate eyes.
For perhaps the first time, taking in all of this splendor, I felt self-conscious about my appearance. I was dressed in the nicest of my casual clothes — khakis ironed to the best of my limited ability, a blue button-down shirt from the Gap, and brown loafers I hadn't taken the trouble to shine. At USC, I'd never thought about my clothes. Sure, there were a few rich kids who wore expensive threads (it was, after all, the University of Spoiled Children), but they were outnumbered by students trying to stretch every dollar, and there was a certain cache to grad student poverty, casual outfits put together from items scavenged from secondhand shops, mixed with a few new things from the Gap or J.Crew. But suddenly, my clothes seemed completely inelegant, as did my car, a ten-year-old Honda passed down from my family.
But there was nothing I could do about this now, so I took a deep breath and got out of the car. I approached the front door determined to knock with as much confidence as I could muster, but when I reached the steps, I noticed that the door — made of honey-colored, heavy, ornately carved wood — was ajar. "Hello?" I called out tentatively, and my voice echoed through what I could see from the stoop was a cavernous front hall. "Hello!" I said again, more loudly, when there'd been no response. This time, an answer, a woman's voice, different from the one I'd heard on the phone that morning.
"The door is open, young man. Come in."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Student of History"
Copyright © 2019 Nina Revoyr.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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