Emma Cline's 6 favorite books set in California

The best-selling author recommends books by Joan Didion, Jean Stein, and more

Emma Cline.
(Image credit: Megan Cline)

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My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes (NYRB Classics, $15).

Beyond the great title, this slim book is just a pleasure to read — cinematic, cool; it's classic Hayes. The novel follows the relationship between a screenwriter and a young woman, with Los Angeles as the backdrop. Read it just for the opening scene, in which the young woman, drink in hand, makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide in the Pacific Ocean.

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On the Edge by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador, $16).

Before St. Aubyn wrote the Patrick Melrose series dissecting the chilly amorality of the wealthy, he took on California New Age types in this very funny parody of life at the Esalen Institute. It's manic and biting, skewering a certain kind of needy searcher in perpetual hunt for a true self.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15).

I read this book as a teenager — it was the first time I understood you could write about where you were from, that a place could take on the qualities of a character. This essay collection, alongside Didion's The White Album, defined for me a particular California darkness — the mythology and the danger, all filtered through Didion's crystalline details.

West of Eden by Jean Stein (Random House, $20).

The inimitable Jean Stein probes the promise and dazzling perversity of Golden Age Hollywood, using the stories of five families as her framework. Like her classic, 1982's Edie, this book compiles a history from a variety of voices, and I read it in awe of Stein's abilities and sensitivities as an interviewer. She is attuned to the minutest of details, the minutest feeling.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead, $16).

This lush and strange novel is by one of my favorite chroniclers of the West. It's atmospheric and unsettling, touching on the past and future of the Golden State, unpacking its myths and its punishments.

Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Morrow, $15).

I loved this novel, a very funny book that perfectly nails the subcultures of the Bay Area, and the ways Silicon Valley intersects with the counterculture to produce a strange ecosystem of self-righteous capitalism. Tulathimutte's writing crackles with manic intelligence.

Emma Cline is the author of The Girls, an acclaimed best-seller, now out in paperback, about a friendship between two female disciples in a Manson Family–like 1960s cult.

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