Plot: This lush, kaleidoscopic novel recounts experiences of the everyday experiences through a lens that is nearly mystical. A relatively simple story of a woman seeking novel experience and self-actualization practically purrs as the author shows a character’s profound, broadening awareness.
Prose/Style: Paulsen's prose is matter-of-fact, organic, and quietly poetic, carrying the story forward with energy and imagination. Dialogue, too, crackles with humor and naturalism.
Originality: Paulsen's novel is reminiscent of memoirs of the wild 1970s, but stands apart through its captivating prose, intelligence, and optimism.
Character Development: Sarah, Rory, and the supporting cast members all have strong narrative arcs that result in a series of satisfying conclusions and lend the novel a sense of true wholeness.
Date Submitted: August 09, 2019
Before I opened “Dancing On The Spider’s Web,” (Tempest, Ltd., $25.99, hardback; $15.99 paperback) a debut novel by Napa Valley Register features editor, Sasha Paulsen, I expected it to be good. What I was unprepared for was just how good. I could not lay it down.
Preparation of meals and eating? Forget it, peanut butter and apples were enough for my husband and myself. Babysitting our young grandson, who has been the delight of my life for four years? Not until I had finished reading.
From the prologue, when Rory McIntyre stops along a dusty road in Mexico to keep from running over a tarantula, to the last word on page 459, I wanted to accompany the book’s quirky characters on their adventures and forays into love without any interruptions.
I suspect that other readers will enjoy “Dancing On the Spider’s Web” as much as I did. It is a joyful tale, filled with humor and surprises, of young love lost and found again.
For those of us who were young adults during the 1970s, this novel captures the spirit of the “winter after the Sumer of Love” time so accurately that it can awaken vivid, yet long-forgotten memories.
For younger readers, it can be a captivating read that offers insight into what living and finding love was like prior to cellphones.
The novel, which is filled with many complex characters, centers on Sarah Glass, a shy, serious medical student who wins a prize for excellence halfway through medical school, and decides to use the money from it to give herself a month to live away from hospitals, laboratories, exams and illness.
Her decision to spend that month in San Francisco, not far from Napa where she grew up, launches her into adventures from California to Mexico and discoveries she would never have made in a lab dissecting cadavers. Breaking from medical school frees her to seek the answer to a question she has never been able to resolve: Is love incompatible with intelligence?
The prose throughout the novel made me feel as though I were just inches away from Sarah and the other characters as I read.
The following excerpt inside the book is the reader’s introduction to Sarah as she arrives in San Francisco.
“The deposit check hadn’t bounced. The keys opened the door. The electricity had been turned on without complications and all four burners on the gas stove worked. Sarah Glass, setting down the last of her three boxes of possessions, was overtaken by an unfamiliar, irrepressible fit of optimism. She felt it distinctly if warily: an inexplicable notion that an invisible hand was arranging these things, a gift for following the bizarre impulse that had brought her here.”
Within minutes, Sarah is befriended by a cat that comes in through her window and remains with her. Human companionship isn’t far behind with a zany cast of characters, some she has just met and others who are lifelong friends.
Romantic encounters come her way with two men, who though opposites, spark strong feelings within her.
Free-spirited Gabriel Dinesen, a handsome young man Sarah meets on the street, confuses and charms her. Gabriel is an eccentric who lives in a mansion owned by his wealthy family. Unbeknownst to his family, the mansion is filled with friends he refers to as “Scoundrels of Leisure.”
She discovers that her best friend, Kate, is now living nearby in San Francisco. Kate and Sarah had been inseparable friends and neighbors in Napa.
Kate’s brother, Rory McIntyre, who was popular at Napa High School and excelled at sports as well as academics, was someone Sarah suffered a silent crush on for years. Just before Rory left for college on the East Coast, they almost became an item, but he met and married someone else. His marriage was a disaster that left him divorced and struggling to raise two children as a single father.
The story unfolds with revealing excursions into Sarah’s childhood in Napa.
Kate and Rory’s parents, Joe and Jean McIntyre, and their six children are a godsend to Sarah after her father dies. This happy, well-adjusted family open their hearts to Sarah, giving her the love that is sadly lacking in her unhappy home life with a cruel and bitter mother.
There are many interesting characters throughout the novel, like a dynamic politician, who is helpful to Sarah and her friends.
Paulsen, who grew up in Napa, emphasized that the book is not autobiographical and none of the characters are based on local Napans. That will come in a later novel, she said.
She has nearly finished a second novel. Future books will “delve into the lives of other characters in the novel and bring us to our current time,” Paulsen explained.
As Paulsen spins her next story, she is also searching for answers to the big questions to share with her readers.
“How did we get to where we are now? It didn’t just happen in 2016,” Paulsen said.
Sasha Paulsen has written a sweet gumdrop of a novel. “Dancing on the Spider’s Web” is a cloud of cotton candy, a box of macarons, or a bowl of strawberry ice cream. It immerses you in a warm cocoon of paisley silks, down pillows and sunlight.
It’s about Sarah Glass, a girl who grew up in Paulsen’s — and my — home, the Napa Valley. She goes to New York for medical school but halfway through, she decides to take a month off. She travels to San Francisco, and as with so many people before her, what starts as a short stay turns into one much longer than anticipated. She gets entangled with all sorts of lovable characters, who do silly San-Francisco-in-the-’70s things.
Chief among them are the Scoundrels of Leisure, a group of misfits who have drug-addled salons at a house in the Berkeley Hills. Gay and mercurial, Gabriel Dinesen, the Chief Scoundrel, becomes her friend, and they eventually end up retreating to a pre-Prohibition castle in the Napa Valley, the site of an abandoned hippie commune from the ‘60s.
The novel takes place in 1977, not 2019, so the San Francisco we experience in the book is not the San Francisco we know now, with its Google buses and smartphones. It’s a San Francisco that I, having been born in 1978, long for, which made the book a joy to read.
In fact, it would have made sense if Sarah had rented a room from Anna Madrigal at 28 Barbary Lane. In tone and spirit, it is very similar to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” But Sarah’s address at Stanyan and Haight is just as ideal a setting for her coming of age.
The crux of the book is the relationship between Sarah and Rory McIntyre, her high school crush. Rory, who left Napa High School in a blaze of glory bound for Harvard, is, some years later, a college drop-out, a single father with two young (and adorable) children who mostly keep him at his wit’s end. They reconnect in San Francisco, setting the story in motion.
Rory is haphazardly working on an astrophysics project at UC Berkeley, which might or might not lead to a career. But however much he might wish to lose himself in the vast reaches of outer space, his attention keeps being pulled back to Earth. Is he interested in stars, Sarah asks him. No, Rory says, they are too far away.
Book-smart Sarah is at her own crossroads. She does like science; she is just not sure how much she likes people, hospitals, doctors or medicine. She yearns for intangible things — love, beauty, art — even though she mistrusts them. She is drawn to Rory, but keeps veering back to the zany companionship of Gabriel whose own goal is to build a better kite that he did last year.
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The sometimes comic confusion that results is what Paulsen has described as “the winter after the Summer of Love.”
One of the funnest aspects of the book is that the Napa Valley is as much a character in the book as Sarah, Rory or Gabriel. The best doughnuts are found at Butter Cream Bakery. When Sarah gets into a car accident she goes to the Queen of the Valley Medical Center. Matt Biagi, Rory’s high school classmate who opens the first white tablecloth restaurant in St Helena — he is someone I know I’ve met before, or at least read about in the Register. And, as a proud Vallergas shopper for the entire 12 years I’ve lived in Napa, I was so happy to see Joe McIntyre (Rory’s father) shop for seafood at the best supermarket in town. RIP Vallergas.
The book is not without some drawbacks, mainly in missed opportunities. Sarah’s father is Mexican, and this point is mentioned obliquely many times, but, as with many things, Sarah is detached from that aspect of her life, until unexpectedly, she goes to Mexico. And there, a strange kind of magic happens.
The parts where astrophysics and medicine were discussed were minor comments, almost like bon mots. That is not to mention the potential thematic possibilities available when your character understands the origin of the universe or the inner workings of the human body. But a deep dive into physics is clearly not what Paulsen has in mind.
My favorite line is when a minor character, the Napa congressman, asks, “Is choice the enemy of commitment?” I love the succinctness of that line. Is choice the enemy of commitment? The obvious answer is yes. If we have too many choices, it makes it harder to commit to one thing. But it also makes sense because our heroine spends 400 or so pages wrestling with committing to her own choices. In this way, the theme of the novel can be reduced to just that one line.
Of course, Paulsen’s beautiful title makes this point much more gracefully. Sarah and Rory and Gabriel and everyone else in the novel, and all of us, even you reading this, are confronting what choices need to be made, and committing to one thing or the other. That is the very nature of the dance of being human.
And it’s a delicate dance. As delicate as a spider’s web.