Céline Keating’s Layla is a debut novel built around a series of slow revelations, a book that asks the reader to be as patient as the titular main character in undertsanding the precise nature of the enigmas involved. It’s also that most quintessentially American of genres, the road trip story. Whether the novel proves to be an engaging journey of discovery or a tedious series of deferred surprises will hinge directly on the reader’s willingness to delay gratification, to accept that there is a perfectly logical explanation for all this secrecy and misdirection.
Layla is a young woman just out of college whose mother is a former ‘60s radical and whose father, a fellow radical, died before Layla was born. As the novel opens, Layla’s mother is also dying, but before she passes, she entrusts her daughter with an apparently inexplicable legacy: she’s instructed to go on a coast-to-coast journey across the USA, stopping along the way to meet with various former comrades of her parents. These visits will serve to give Layla critical information about her father’s life—and death.
The ultimate purpose of this trip is to provide Layla—and the reader, who is equally ignorant—with a picture of Layla’s absent father, a man whose erasure from his daughter’s life is so complete that she lacks even a photo of him.
At this point, a reader might reasonably ask, “Why not just tell Layla whatever it is that she needs to know?” Apart from the obvious answer—there wouldn’t be a book in that case—other, more complex reasons for all the secrecy are hinted at. Keating goes to considerable trouble to create a credible reason for all the smoke and mirrors—necessitating stops in Vermont, Massachusetts, San Francisco and the Oregon desert—and most of it is believable enough.
Layla is a likeable character, and Keating is adept at turning a memorable phrase. At one point we are told, “The next morning was sharp and clear enough to cut yourself on.” Later, on the road, “I learned that there’s a rhythm to driving long distances, a rhythm and a mood, and I felt a strange sadness as I passed the outskirts of towns and cities I never stopped to see, at the sameness of the MacDonald’s [sic] and the Mobil gas stations that fool you into thinking you’ve seen everything, when you’ve seen nothing at all.”
Perhaps most of all, the story effectively evokes the tensions inherent between hippie radical parents and their less-than-impressed offspring. Layla’s alienation from her activist mother is clear from the start: “She was a Women’s Studies teacher, an antiwar activist, a placard-wearing, union-ballad-singing Leftie… But I wouldn’t engage.”
The course of the novel is difficult to summarize, given the information that crops up as Layla’s cross-country tour rolls on. This is a book that thrives on revelations at regular intervals, and any attempt to discuss them here would result in an unfortunate spoiling of the surprise. Suffice it to say that Layla’s perception of her absent father changes, radically and more than once, throughout the course of the book.
Ultimately, a story like this succeeds or fails on the strength of its characters, their believability and depth. Keating does a good job here, bringing to life a lively crew of individuals: protagonist Layla, her best buddy Jenny, and various older ex-hippies like Philip Logan, a former flame of Layla’s mother who now resides in San Francisco and who wears “a silver bracelet that, on him, somehow didn’t look ridiculous.”
Hanging over all these characters, of course, is the central mystery if the story: What happened to Layla’s father, and how did he die? Keating does her best to milk this mystery for all it’s worth, but at times she tries a little too hard to imbue this enigma with an extra layer of misdirection.
For her first stop, Layla travels to Vermont, where she meets friends of her parents, and learns—well, nothing really. At least, nothing that couldn’t have been revealed a good deal sooner and more simply. Paradoxically, as Layla’s quest continues and grows more elaborate, the reader’s impatience with the proceedings is likely to decrease; early on, though, the elaborately contrived plot is not entirely convincing.
The final third of the book is the most satisfying, as Layla learns answers to some of her questions, which only (of course) engender a great many more. From there, the plot moves along smoothly and believably, and the plot threads resolve themselves in a generally satisfying way (except for a cringe-inducing last line).
Neither a masterpiece nor a car wreck, then, Layla will prove to be a diverting enough ride, especially for the reader with an attachment to the era of the ‘60s, either through direct experience or that of their parents. These days, isn’t that just about everybody?