Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

Honey Girl is an engrossing coming-of-age story set in early 1970s Santa Monica, California. Navigating the beach culture, adhering to strict unwritten rules for girls, and coming to understand her own self are at the heart of 15 year-old half Hawaiian girl Nani’s story.

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Synopsis: Grieving over the recent loss of her larger than life Hawaiian father, Haunani “Nani” Grace Nuuhiwa is forced to relocate to her white/haole mother’s territory: Los Angeles. She will have to integrate into the hierarchy of LA surfers, their ‘honey girls’, the valley girls, beach bums, sons of elite society, and also deal with her own deteriorating relationship with her mother. Complicating things, Nani likes the girls just as much as the guys; budding relationships with each gender will each have their own pitfalls.

Although the location is Southern California, the book is very much about Hawaiian culture before the corporate takeover of the Islands in the late 1970s. The playground of the elite jetsetters and local stars like Don Ho, it was a Hawaii that was both laid back and very intimate – where Nani’s father owned a famous bar that attracted celebrities and surfers at the same time. Nani loved her Hawaiian and resents the move to the mainland.

It is that intimate Hawaiian world that Nani brings to Santa Monica. Following a strict set of ‘rules’ laid out by her former surfer girl Aunt, Nani will use them as a guide to slowly navigate her way around the elite crowd at the beach.  At times she will succeed and at times she will fail but the book captures perfectly the game the girls will play both to survive and to thrive in a boy’s world. Jealousy, pettiness, camaraderie, viciousness, redemption – Nani will find these and more in ‘the line up’ – the elite girlfriends of the ‘hottest’ surfers on the beach.

The pathos in the book is what keeps the story moving and riveting. From the callous disregard of the girls by the surfer boys to the teen girl machinations running as deep as the bay surf, it is beautifully played and faithfully low key. There are no over-the-top antics or drama here – no beach blanket bingo or MTV crassness. No one is evil or good; each character is looking to find their own place in the world. And while this has a YA age character, Honey Girl is very definitely a book written for adults. Never lurid, always grounded, it is an engaging read.

From the description, one might assume the book was about Nani’s budding love life and a statement about the LGBT. But honestly, whether gravitating toward the boys or the girls, the story is more about the bigger picture of Nani’s life rather than a microcosm of the lurid. Nani is dealing not only with the change in her life, accepting the death of her father – but also an alcoholic mother only too eager to abandon Nani’s Hawaiian heritage. A heritage that Nani begins to question by the end of the story as she tries to apply Hawaiian surfer rules to the Los Angeles world. Most of the interrelation scenes in the book are Nani feeling her way around unwritten but very static social mores.

I would imagine this is fairly close to being autobiographical; there are so many bittersweet details of a Southern California (and Hawaii) now gone. Skateboarders, Tab, roaches and joints, mismatched crochet bikini tops and hippy ‘Topanga girls’; dolphin shorts and overgrown bougainvillea, iceplant borders along ocean-side roads. Really, the only thing missing was a stronger soundtrack and I felt that lack keenly. The book doesn’t embrace the songs of the era.

This is a beautiful, grounded, and nostalgic flashback of 1970s Los Angeles surf culture, Hawaiian heritage, and the trials of growing up in an era of easy drugs, tricky subcultures, and great change. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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