“We are thirteen, almost fourteen, and these streets of Sea Cliff are ours.” Thus opens Vendela Vida’s exhilarating, maddening, thoroughly entertaining novel, “We Run the Tides.” The irresistible voice belongs to narrator Eulabee, who has an often-askew sense of humor, a mostly fine-tuned sense of observation, and a tightly knit posse of girlfriends — Maria Fabiola, Faith, and Julia — who rule their neighborhood roost in Sea Cliff, a swish enclave of 1980s San Francisco.
In stark contrast is Julia’s half-sister, Gentle. The daughter of a hippie mom who’s absconded to India, 17-year-old Gentle has been kicked out of the private girls’ school the others attend, is often high, wears bell-bottoms, and was once caught swinging on the local monkey bars, naked. “Everything about Gentle is grubby and unwashed,” notes Eulabee, “but this is the eighties and the eighties are clean, and the colors are bright and separated.” In the world of Eulabee and her friends, Guess jeans, Esprit tops, Lanz of Salzberg and Laura Ashley nightgowns, Swatch watches, and Lilly Pulitzer prints abound — though Maria Fabiola has also been leaning toward figure-hugging Fiorucci T-shirts.
The quartet of eighth-grade girls can feel their new power coming on. Though they attend that all-girls’ school, they “know where the boys live…”; they spend their sleepovers rating boys in yearbooks from Faith’s previous school; and a night out at the movies to see “The Breakfast Club” fuels them with particularly electrifying energy: “We watch the movie with rapt attention and with glee. When we leave the theater we are delirious. … We want to want. We want to love. We want to want love. We are on the precipice of having real boyfriends, of making out with them. We know this. We can feel this urge pulsating through our bodies…”
There’s a lot of pent-up energy in these girls’ lives with none-too-many obvious outlets. Apart, that is, from ballet lessons and dancing school — “All of us … go to ballroom dancing school because that’s where you meet the boys who go to the all-boys’ schools” — and roughhousing on the beach, where Eulabee and Maria Fabiola excel at running between two promontory-separated beaches at low tide by watching the waves.
Eulabee admits early in the book that she’s dabbled in the fine art of lying. A year earlier, while she and Maria Fabiola were selling lemonade, Eulabee lied outright a to a neighbor — who clearly didn’t recognize the early-blooming Maria Fabiola — claiming that her friend was her newly adopted sister. Then, in a scene that manages to be hilarious while also generating a downright physical, “Oh, NO!” sensation, the girls knock on nearby doors and introduce Maria Fabiola in her fictitious role. The inevitable outcome — having to retrace those steps, “apologizing to stern faces” — will ring true to anyone who overstepped their storytelling boundaries as a teen.
But darker dynamics lurk within Sea Cliff and its inhabitants, from the downfall of a doctor’s family whose sons turned to drugs to a father’s closet concealing his stash of Playboy magazines with his gun. When Eulabee’s buddies try to involve her in a claim they make about a man whose path they cross on their way to school, and Eulabee, who noticed nothing amiss, refuses to go along with their lie, the entire tenor of their friendship changes. Eulabee gets the cold shoulder, is disinvited from parties, and finds herself in a loneliest of spots: “A lunch without friends is a lunch that’s too long.”
Even as Eulabee is trying to wend her way through eighth-grade as a sudden social pariah, a family’s worst fears come all-too-palpably to life: Maria Fabiola disappears on her walk home from school, and the police begin to investigate the disappearance as a kidnapping.
In a book full of narratives, some more imaginative and convoluted than others, often conflicting, sometimes heart-breaking, Vida holds her own narrative steady with Eulabee’s distinct voice. While she’s got some all-too-human blind spots, Eulabee is pretty clued-in and clear-eyed about others’ actions, and her unusual sense of humor comes hand-in-hand with a healthy dose of scepticism, particularly when it comes to adults’ foibles and faults. (She’s downright funny too: a diaphragm in a science sex-education class at school resembles “a pink trampoline for a rodent.”) In a particularly telling scene, when her art-and-antiques-dealer dad brings home what he believes to be a painting by one Vanessa Bell, it turns out that Eulabee knows more about Virginia Woolf’s sister and the Bloomsbury group than her dad does.
Through Eulabee’s eyes, Vida gives us visceral insight into the other characters, sometimes with just a sentence or two. Faith’s mother, for example, “acts like life is a large broken car she’s pushing down the road. She walks diagonally, as though she’s making her way through a rainstorm, even on the fairest of days.” Or Maria Fabiola’s mother, who “wore large sunglasses so opaque that sometimes it appeared she had difficulty seeing through the lenses. She often lifted them up in an attempt to get a better view, and then let them fall back over her eyes as though disappointed at what things really looked like.”
With its tangible, tactile details peppered throughout and super-smart, quirky Eulabee at its helm, “We Run the Tides” is deceptively sweet — and as addictive as candy.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.
WE RUN THE TIDES
By Vendela Vida
Ecco, 272 pp., $26.99