The Girls from Corona del Mar

Rufi Thorpe

Alfred A. Knopf; 242 pages

In our culture, we often refer to abortion as "a woman's right to choose." It's the kind of sound bite that smooths over the more difficult issues involved — the word "right" itself evokes a feeling of confidence and power.

And what is the choice, exactly? Often, it goes beyond the simple decision to bring home a bundle of joy from the hospital or to cancel or postpone that endeavor.

The most bracing passage in "The Girls from Corona del Mar," the debut novel by Rufi Thorpe, comes three-quarters of the way through when one of the titular girls — now a few years past girlhood — sits in a hotel room and engages her friend in a savage debate about how much responsibility she has for her disabled son. By this point, both characters have dealt with the issue of abortion at least once, and Lorrie Ann, who opted against it, has seen her life spiral downhill while Mia, who opted for it, has thrived.

As the conversation rages, it hits one vexing issue after another: whether the needs of flesh and blood surpass those of others, the price of hedonism, even the ethics of euthanasia. It's as provocative a dialogue scene as any I've encountered in a book this year, and it sets the tone for the final stretch of "The Girls from Corona del Mar," which begins as a sometimes awkward read but builds to a searing conclusion.

Thorpe, a Corona del Mar native, opens her story in the 1990s — a time, as depicted here, when the Woodstock generation had grown into awkward parents and the neighborhood had a "half empty, somewhat decayed, beautifully perfumed" languor. In this setting, we meet Lorrie Ann, the daughter of a poor but tightly knit family, and Mia, who leads a wayward life and stubbornly views Lorrie Ann as a moral superior.

Then tragedy hits Lorrie Ann once, and then again and again: first with the death of her father in a motorcycle accident, then in a pregnancy that she decides to keep, then with widowhood, drugs and a son with cerebral palsy. Meanwhile, Mia, who terminated a teen pregnancy of her own, heads on to college, becomes a successful researcher abroad and watches her friend's life spiral increasingly out of control.

In its first half or so, "The Girls from Corona del Mar" isn't always easy to warm to. Mia's narration feels strident and expletive-heavy in places, and her tendency to stress the same points — Lorrie Ann's "perfection," the metaphor of vultures to represent bad luck — becomes redundant. As the novel progresses, though, these quibbles lessen in importance, and the questions Thorpe raises grow increasingly profound.

How many of us have idolized a person early in life, only to have our illusions twisted? Do we cling to our teenage personas longer than we should? And if we lead happy lives as adults, what price do we pay for that happiness?

Thorpe is more content to pose those questions than provide answers. Any given reader might come away from "The Girls from Corona del Mar" with a different take on which character acted rightly, and how, and when. But regardless of morals, consider a moment toward the book's end when Mia tells her partner, "Let's just have a good Sunday." When you weigh those words in context, you'll realize their import — and the fact that, sometimes, enjoying a quiet day can be a choice all its own.

—Michael Miller

*

Let It Go

Haster

14-track LP; self-released

Avenged Sevenfold better watch its back, because there's a new heavy rock band in Huntington Beach and it's called Haster.

The five-piece group released its debut LP, "Let It Go," this year and offers a new flavor of technical and heavy guitar riffs, rich drum fills and an always-welcoming dose of screaming.

Unlike Avenged Sevenfold, which excels in brutal, guitar-shredding songs, Haster's brand of rock is akin to Tool, Alice in Chains and Korn, all of which have a more dense and melodic tone.