Birds of California by Katie Cotugno
April 26, 2022, by Harper Perennial
Review by Kate H.
I had to go back and re-read the blurb for Birds of California about halfway through because this is one of those cases where the marketing and the content don’t match. The promotional material refers to it as a “whip smart romantic comedy.” Whip smart, I will give it, but romantic comedy? No.
Birds of California is a novel about two actors who starred as kids on the television show by that name but went their separate ways as they neared adulthood. Sam, charismatic and attractive, left the show to pursue his acting career. Fiona went down in flames, attracting media attention as she self-sabotaged all over Hollywood until the show got canceled mid-season. The book takes place years later when the head of the network and one of its adult stars decide to shoot a reboot. Sam has had some successes over the years, but his current show gets canceled, leaving him with an expensive Tesla lease and no money. Fiona has been keeping her head down, evading attention, and leading a reclusive life that involves keeping her clinically depressed father’s business afloat and taking care of her little sister. Since the show, she has received inpatient counseling and suffers from PTSD for reasons that aren’t clear until the end of the book. Sam needs the reboot, but Fiona flatly refuses to sign on.
For me, trying to figure out what Fiona went through overshadowed the slow build of the feelings between her and Sam. I got an inkling of what her secret was, but there was little to confirm my suspicions until deep into the book. She is prickly, defensive, and very self-aware. I thought the PTSD rep was good and appreciated the range of reactions and Fiona’s internal monologue as she deals with her quickly triggered anger. The book alternates between a close 3rd person view of both her and Sam. In her case it’s frustrating: we see her thoughts, but we don’t know what is behind them. The concealment of what caused Fiona’s PTSD distracts from the slow-building romance to the extent that I wasn’t as interested in whether they got together as I was in learning the truth. This creates a kind of suspense, but it also seems manufactured, given the window we have on Fiona’s other thoughts.
The characters both remember a kiss they shared at the last wrap party for Birds of California, and the unexplored attraction persists. But the narrative does not make a great case for their relationship in the now. Sam’s feelings for Fiona were more convincing to me, perhaps because he is a less complex character. Even though he seems a bit shallow, it’s his thoughts about Fiona that seem most caring. He struggles between his need for a paycheck and honoring Fiona’s wish to not do the reboot, despite not understanding her reasons. But he also puts up with a lot of verbal abuse from Fiona. Sure, it’s often said in a witty way, but I kept waiting for him to draw a line. You get the sense that this is yet another defense mechanism of Fiona’s, and maybe even her being dishonest with herself, but for me, it undercut their relationship.
We learn for certain what happened to Fiona at the end of the novel, but there are hints dropped starting about halfway through the novel. I understand why Fiona doesn’t tell Sam, and the moment she does is a signal of trust. We see Sam do a lot to earn that trust, and hopefully, after the speedy and not altogether satisfying conclusion, she reciprocates.
CW: PTSD, clinical depression in father, sexual grooming, off-page sexual assault