Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast is classified as a fiction crime thriller and opens on Karen Di Cilia recognizing that her husband is having an affair with a real estate woman.
Karen’s confrontation over the affair seems minimal enough, other than her act of smashing in her husband’s car with her own vehicle in front of an upscale condo. When Karen threatens to have an affair herself out of spite rather than want, Frank Di Cilia gets mad. Readers realize just how angry her words made him after he dies a few months later (of natural causes) and the conditions of his estate are explained. Frank was a retired mobster; Karen knew that going in and felt a little excited playing the part of a mobster’s wife. They were both older, he a widower and her a widow, so they moved into the relationship easily. But Karen’s disposition when the novel begins tells us that she is bored of her day-to-day life and angry that Frank can go have affairs yet expect her to stay the faithful wife in the home spending her time having to “find woman things to do” (Leonard 4). When she threatens to do as he does and “not tell [him] where [she] goes” (Leonard 5) He uses this threat to alter his last will and testament and makes it so that the $4,000,000 she stands to inherit will become untouchable to her if she has any relations with any other man. In other words, Frank sets out to control Karen’s chastity even beyond the grave. His lawyer and friend Ed Grossi attempts to honor the bizarre request by employing ex-con and former swamp dweller Roland Crowe to put the beatdown on anyone showing too much interest in Karen. Then comes Cal Maguire, a paroled ex-con from Detroit to collect a payment from Frank. All intentions start to collide in this warped but intriguing take on Rapunzel, if Rapunzel offered mobsters, murderers from the everglades, and a smaller scale SeaWorld knockoff called Neptune’s Realm.
Overall impression: ***POTENTIAL SPOILERS***But I have tried to keep them vague.
As readers, we get to jump into the minds of several of the characters in the book but primarily, we stay with Karen and Cal. Focus shifts more towards Cal as it becomes evident that he has strong feelings for Karen and seems to want to help her. This dynamic is necessary for the end and how I interpreted Karen’s final actions and dialogue. Without giving anything specific away, I will say that I read Karen’s motive as her need to make the best life out of the reality she is dealt. For that reason, she does not come off as calculating to me. Just maybe a little conditioned by everything, by life. She is not a victim, and she is not a bully. She is “Cool Karen” (Leonard 267), as Cal himself observes with an irritated tone. There is a parallel that Cal (at first maybe subconsciously) tries to make between Karen and a time he sets dolphins free from Neptune’s Realm and then is astonished when they swiftly return right back to their holding tanks. Cal feels the dolphins are so warped they want to stay in their fake reality, and they do not want to leave. This foreshadows how he interprets Karen’s dilemma when he is angry. I do not think Karen needs anyone setting her free though. Maybe she sees nothing wrong with the reality she has forged for herself because she knows how to be the main attraction – the “porpoise” with the best tricks. But really, I think there is no better person to get Karen what she needs beyond Karen. For that angle, I really enjoyed the novel and Karen Di Cilia’s ability to combat the medieval-esque problems heaped onto her. Cal is the only one disturbed by the fake reality at Neptune’s Realm. Everyone else, including the much younger woman, Leslie, who Cal uses for casual sex before he meets Karen, finds his assessment pointless.
Karen not wanting to remain sexless as a 40-something widow is hardly a play at the beautiful, sexual woman as evil dame stereotype. What Leonard does instead, is use Karen to show us the hypocrisy in all the men around her. Even Cal wants something out of her by wanting to be with her. Her position towards the rest of them and what she does is a way to elevate the role of the woman in the genre. She is not evil, she does not need to be saved, and her play at the situation is unarguably hers. I would expect no less from a writer who gave us Karen Sisco and Jackie Burke (aka Jackie Brown).
I recommend Gold Coast. The characters are worth knowing and Leonard gives us a great study on all of them by dropping them together in an off the wall plot.
“The police officers stood there not saying anything.
What did they see? A guy chases the maid into the
swimming pool and the lady of the house gets
pissed off. The lady hadn’t yelled or had a fit. The
lady was mad, yeah, but she seemed in control of
the situation. (‘Do you really want to know?’)
Pretty cool about it” (Leonard 256)
Leonard, Elmore. Gold Coast. HarperCollins, 1980.