The Jennifer Connolly Chronicles: Once in California

Alternate title:  Adjacent to Sweet Valley: the Lila-Fowler*-as-played-by-Jennifer-Connolly Chronicles, Part 1.

*  Not actually Lila Fowler, nor is the book related in any way outside my head to Sweet Valley.


Oh, first… I COMPLETED MY BINGO BOARD!!!  The “Book I meant to read last year” square goes to the Lumberjanes original graphic novel, The Infernal Compass! I’d been meaning to hike deeper into the Lumberjanes universe for years, but never got around to reading any of the books outside the main canon until now.  Expect reviews of my last few Bingo reads in the next month or so.


Cover of Once in Calfornia, by Becky Stuart. Against a pale manilla background, a young man with pale skin and short, curly dark brown hair stares off to the left edge of the cover while cradling a young woman with pale skin and long dark hair. The young woman is modeled by Jennifer Connolly. She's wearing a red one-piece swim suit. She circles the young man's neck with her arms and stares in the same direction, but a little lower.

Becky Stuart.  Once in California.  New York: Silhouette Books, 1984.

Rating:  4.9 out of 5 eucalyptus trees sending their dry, lemon-like scent deep into your subconscious

  • Or:  4.9 out of 5 times Matt is hypnotized by Rosalind’s flashing amethyst eyes (srsly, the amethyst eyes get at least four separate mentions).

Recommended if you like:  80s paperback romance; feel-good summer stories; well-rounded, realistic characters; non-psychotic sibling rivalry.


  • “California Soul,” Marlena Shaw
  • “Fish Taco,” by Dick Dale
  • “Cruel Summer,” by Bananarama
  • “Go Your Own Way,” by Fleetwood Mac
  • “Island in the Sun,” by Weezer


Back in May, Snark Valley paid homage to the various models who’ve graced the covers of Sweet Valley High — from soap opera star Jonna Leigh Stack, who portrayed Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, to Joelle Carter, who brought Bruce Patman’s great-great grandmother Sophie to life.  But the name that made me happy-gasp was Jennifer Connolly, the Labyrinth star who may have been the face of Lila Fowler.

In addition to her possible SVH gigs, Connolly has modeled for the covers of several other 80s teen paperbacks.  And of course I e-bayed myself the three featured in the Snark Valley post.  Today, we’re going to sail through the pages of Once in California, the tale of Santa Barbara twins Matt and Kip James, who find themselves fighting over a girl for the first time.

My headcanon is that “Rosalind Hammond” is the alias of Lila Fowler, who decides to spend her post-high-school summer in Santa Barbara just so she can ignite a new Double Love war between another set of California twins.

Also, I’m pretty sure Matt and Kip’s father is somehow connected to Kevin Luong from Seven Tears at High Tide.  A geologist who studies rock formations in Northern California, possibly in the San Luis Obispo area (which the book explicitly mentions in a slightly different context) . . .  Coincidence?  I think not!

Anyhoo.  This “First Love from Silhouette” story is about seventeen-year-old twins Matt and Kip, who are spending one last summer together before Kip goes off to college.  They have less time than they’d like, since Matt is already starting work as a diver on the oil rigs near the Channel Islands, but they still plan to spend Matt’s free days surfing and roasting fresh-caught fish on the beach.

Unfortunately, the brothers who’ve never had a serious conflict before are suddenly falling for the same girl — Rosalind Hammond, who literally washes up from the sea and sweeps them off their feet with her wicked sailing skills.

The Gnarly Waves (i.e. what I loved):

This plot is fast-paced and feel-good — a perfect hammock read with a thrilling climax and super-satisfying resolution.

A photo of my legs encased in my first mermaid tail as I lay in my backyard hammock. You see the end of the tail stretched out against one corner of the hammock. The tail is black with a Jackson Pollock style splatter-pattern of blue, pink, green, and yellow spots. The fluke is black with thin blue stripes, and there are pink, green, yellow and blue streamers dangling down over the fluke. The hammock is a mesh net painted with red, blue, green, turquoise and dark blue stripes stretching lengthwise along the hammock. In the background, you see a bit of green yard with a few pine and deciduous trees.

The setting is a balmy, breezy, eucalyptus-scented paradise, and the characters feel like three-dimensional human beings who are neither angels nor sociopaths.  Of course I love the 2D melodrama of the Sweet Valley books, but sometimes it’s nice to read a pulp romance with more realistic characters who are more likely to actually learn from their mistakes.

Matt and Kip genuinely love each other, naturally complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Matt has taught Kip how to surf and ride a bike; Kip has helped Matt with his schoolwork over the years; and they both share this lovely quirk where one of them starts humming a random tune, the other one picks it up, and they go on weaving a totally freestyle song back and forth.

Also, I like how the story shows that guys, too, sometimes feel the impulse to downplay their strengths to impress or reassure a love interest — and, at the same time, it’s done in an organic, understandable way.  Matt’s trying to find common ground and show that he’s relatable, even as he realizes how weird it feels to pretend he’s not as strong a diver/surfer as he really is, and — at the same time — Rosalind definitely doesn’t come across as the type of girl who needs guys to lower themselves to build herself up.

On that note, I think Silhouette achieved their goal, as stated in their introductory letter, of presenting “more contemporary, stronger heroines.”  Rosalind acts as a complement to her ultimate love interest, rather than as a sidekick or trophy.  She’s a Strong Female Character in the best ways, a complex human being who’s neither overly sexualized nor emotionally flattened in the process of showing her badass nature.

And, finally, I love the descriptions of Matt as a natural sea creature.  He’s a merman at heart, totally at home in the kelp forest and on a surf board.

A Few Sketchy Moves (the slightly-less-awesome stuff):

A few details didn’t age quite as well as the overall story, like when Matt repeatedly waxes nostalgic about the “ancient Indians” who “used to” live in Santa Barbara (i.e. the book doesn’t seem to realize indigenous Californians still exist), and when the narrator refers to Rosalind’s gatekeeper as “the Mexican.”  I didn’t take too big a bite out of my rating, since these were clearly unintentional faux pas, but they did make me cringe a bit.

Closeout (in conclusion):

If you’re looking for a literal beach read, I highly recommend e-baying or ThriftBooking yourself a copy of Once in California.  It’s a quick, relaxing read that’s perfect for the dog days of August.

How about you, Bookwyrms?  What are some of your most relaxing-yet-absorbing summer reads?  What books would you recommend throwing in with the sunscreen and flip flops?


P.S.  Voting is now underway for the MerCon sandcastle contest!  You can vote until August 14th.  This is my entry, in the “All that Glitters and Sparkles” category:

Two photographs, side-by-side, of my sandcastle made of synthetic materials. In the photo on the left, you see a large square mirror set deep into a wooden frame on top of a dresser (it's kind of like a diorama). On top of the mirror is a turquoise and purple metal water bottle with a fish-scale pattern, a stack of mermaid books, and a coffee tumbler with a fish-scale pattern that shifts from magenta to purple to blue. These three elements are the castle towers. On the wall above the castle is a large clock shaped like a coffee cup. This is the castle's coffee shop (because merfolk need their salted caramel lattes, too). Reflected in the mirror, you see a woman with long dark hair, a sunset-colored fish-scale bikini top with arm circlets, and a jade-green knit mermaid tail blanket. Above her head is a poster of Mucha's "Four Seasons," which shows four tall panels, each with an art-nouveau-style woman during a different season. Set inside the frame in the left-bottom corner is a small wooden painting of a light blue mermaid silhouette with the words "You're mermazing." In the bottom-right corner are a sand-colored mermaid figurine and a square jewelry box with a mermaid painted on the lid. Outside the castle, by the bottom-right corner, is a small plush turtle with a blue head and legs, and a purple shell. By the left side of the castle is a jewelry tree with many dangling bracelets and nautical ornaments. The photo on the right is a close-up of the jewelry tree. You see multiple bracelets, a purple mermaid ornament, and a dark blue bubble ornament showing a lake scene with the words "Lake Geneva" printed on the front.


  1. Love the sandcastle entry! Happy to hear you found what sounds like a great read, and that it mostly holds up to the test of time. I mean, why wouldn’t you just call the guy Gatekeeper if you wanted to avoid his name? It sounds so cool, and is better than using race as a descriptor.

    • Exactly! I’m guessing that was the author’s way of trying to be more concrete, but there are times when vagueness just works better! Every “writing rule” has legit exceptions!

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