Helen of Pasadena: Chapter 1

Oct 14, 2010

Editor’s note: In honor of the Amazon Pre-Order Day (Friday, October 15th) for Helen of Pasadena, and in anticipation of the publication date of November 1, we at Hometown Pasadena are happy to share the first chapter of Lian Dolan’s novel, coming from our publisher, Prospect Park Media.

Now I knew: I’d get a full church at my funeral. What a relief. It was the kind of thing I lost sleep over at night, being a planner and all. How many times had I sat at funerals, counting the hundreds (or, more depressingly, dozens) of mourners in the pews and thought, Who would show for me? Do people like me more or less than Jane’s mother? Do I know a hundred people who would care? Two hundred? Who should cater? Now I had my answer: full church. Because if this many people could show up for my husband, my late husband, then I’d get almost this many, right?

One thing I’d never planned on was my husband dropping a bombshell on me and then dropping dead.

That would have been good to know.

At least Merritt would have been pleased at the standing-room-only situation in the church. Merritt was a big deal in his world, and to prove that, there were the partners from the firm and the fraternity brothers, town officials, boards of schools and organizations, a Pasadena who’s who. Merritt’s people, many of whom he had known his whole, short life.

But there were lots of my people, too: the thin, young mothers from Millington School turned out in their best black suits, Prada purses and Tory Burch flats despite the economic downturn; the formerly thin team moms from a decade on the sidelines of every sport from basketball to soccer; the lovely sustaining members of the Symphony Guild, whispering together in the back rows about losing such a big donor in such a tough time; the handsome dads from water polo contemplating if they’ll be next. Half of them longing for a drink; the other half wondering who did the flowers. Their presence meant the world to me.

I was shocked by Merritt’s death, maybe even in shock. But I was not devastated. I was relieved.

Very, very relieved.

“It’s a tragedy when a husband is taken from his wife, when a father is taken from his son, when a son is taken from his mother, when a citizen is taken from his community, as Merritt Fairchild was taken from his lovely wife, Helen, his brave son, Aiden, his adoring mother, Mitsy, and his beloved hometown of Pasadena,” sang out Monsignor Flaherty, working his Irish brogue and his gift of oration from the altar of St. Perpetua’s, the most socially progressive and socially acceptable Catholic church in town.

Merritt had donated the altar. That’s the kind of big, public gesture he liked to make. It was a simple, hand-carved mahogany altar influenced by the Mission at San Luis Obispo. Merritt had asked me to do the research and make the recommendation to the Church Restoration Committee. It was all a little contrived for me, but I’d risen to the occasion, loving history and architecture as I do. I still preferred to slip an anonymous $25 in the envelope at collection. Merritt never understood that. “Why give a little every week when we could just write one big check at the annual auction?” he’d say.

The Monsignor was a cult figure, inspiring the kind of following that most Catholic priests could only dream of these days. Maybe it’s because he understood the power of myth, because he was certainly spinning one now.

“Merritt Fairchild will be missed,” continued the Monsignor. “His sense of generosity, his sense of humor, his sense of dignity. This is a man who will be missed.”

Thank you, Monsignor, on behalf of my son, who will miss him, even though he never knew him that well. Or maybe precisely because he did not know him well. I squeezed Aiden’s hand. How did he get so big? Not 20th percentile anymore, so I guess all that worrying paid off. Thirteen years old and now he has no father. After two days of alternating between sobbing and silence, Aiden looked surprisingly strong, sitting there in his itchy Nordstrom suit that I barely even remember buying, even though it was only two days ago. My God, what a two days it had been! I thought you were supposed to get five stages of grief; I got about 36 hours.

Hold it together and get through this performance.

“He was a man who honored his commitments deeply.”

Until he didn’t. I used to be in love with my husband—really, really in love. When I first moved to Pasadena to become Mrs. Merritt Fairchild, I thought I was the luckiest girl in town. Marriage to Merritt meant stability and social status, something I never had growing up. Central Oregon wasn’t too big on cotillions and country clubs. Who needed to socialize in formalized groups when there was plenty of pot and bootleg Grateful Dead tapes to share? My parents meant no harm, but, really, a life selling macramé and scented oils out of a VW camper van was not for me. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Walker Percy to The Preppy Handbook, made good grades and got out of Jerry Garciaville as soon as I could.

Enter Merritt Fairchild, a straight-arrow Berkeley law student in a blue blazer and khakis. I was an archaeology grad student who was working at the food co-op when Merritt strolled down my aisle, solid, graceful and slightly sweaty after a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Merritt feigned interest in the eternal question: quinoa vs. bulgur. After he asked me out, I actually looked over my shoulder to see if there was a sorority girl behind me. I loved it when he introduced me to his law school buddies as his “yurt-raised hippie chick”or his “genius Greek-speaking goddess.” Like he appreciated my past but believed in a future free of weekend craft fairs. When he asked me to marry him six months later, despite his mother’s objections to my unorthodox upbringing and my parents’ objection to his conventional upbringing, Merritt was my hero.

I sailed through the early years, thinking how very clever I was to have found Merritt and given him a healthy, strapping baby boy. Merritt was a solid citizen in the solid, suburban town of Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade, the Norton Simon Museum, Caltech, Greene and Greene homes and old money. Old, old money. The kind of credentials that could only be sexy if you grew up in a town like Sisters, Oregon, which had more bead stores than banks and featured “art” galleries full of tree trunks shaped into beavers by chain saws.

Merritt was busy building up a law firm and then making the switch into capital investments; I was busy building friendships and navigating the social waters with complete naiveté. I happily traded in my grad-student status for membership in the young mothers’ club of Pasadena. I think it was the car. Not admirable, but I loved that Volvo. It was new and shiny and not at all like the rusty relics I’d seen at the Oregon textile symposiums of my youth. That car was the most beautiful shade of blue. Hello, keyless remote entry. Goodbye, archetypes of the feminine in classical mythology.

I’ll just take a few years off, I thought once I was pregnant. I’m only 26, I’ll finish that thesis someday. But for now I had money to raise for the new children’s museum. Merritt used to laugh, amazed that I was asked to be on the board at Kidseum with my natural-fiber past and subscription to Biblical Archaeology magazine. He’d tease me in front of his clients, but all in good fun, I’d thought. But in the last few years, the teasing had stopped being funny. It had started to feel real.

Still, that was no reason to feel relief at his death.

“Merritt Fairchild was the kind of man who inspired others to be their best, raise their game, achieve more. He brought out the best in those around him.”

Or their insecurities. Should I have I paid more attention to social obligations? Or my grooming? Or any of the other minutiae the mattered to Merritt? I’ll never know now.

“It is fitting that a man who gave so much to his community should die in service to the organization that he loved so much.” Monsignor let it go at that, but I thought I heard snickers. A manicured hand squeezed my shoulder warmly, then my friend Candy McKenna, scented by Michael Kors and coiffed by Stephen of Stephen Stephens Salon, whispered in my ear, “Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy.” My Candy-recommended mantra for the next few days. Be the stoic widow, Candy directed. I conceded to Candy in matters like this.

Candy had a profound sense of the appropriate, being a former Rose Queen, the pinnacle of teenage social success in Pasadena. Out of thousands, literally thousands, of fresh-faced candidates, Candy was chosen to reign. Rising to the top of the Rose Court through excessive grooming, academic achievement and community service is usually a prelude to a charmed life in TV news or charitable works. Candy had been a spectacular Rose Queen, squeezing every ounce of extra camera time and connections out of her moment in the sun.

Then came the fall.

She called it “an unfortunate case of misjudgment,” her Vanessa Williams incident in the late ‘80s. Candy had taken her 1987 reign as Rose Queen right to the Ivy League, only to discover that no one at Brown cared that she’d worn a diamond crown and waved to millions on New Year’s morning. Being Pasadena’s Rose Queen meant nothing to the jaded East Coast undergrads of Providence, Rhode Island, especially to her roommate, a women’s studies major with a minor in comparative feminist lit. By her sophomore year, long after her official reign ended, Candy was desperate to reclaim her status. So, in “an unfortunate case of misjudgment,” Candy posed for Playboy’s Women of the Ivy Leagues issue. Back then, a naked photo was shocking, not like today, where every beauty queen has some X-rated video posted on the Internet. Once the Tournament of Roses caught wind of her, umm, exposure, she was shunned. Not officially tossed out of the Tournament family, but not welcomed back for reunions either. Candy reeled, transferred back to UCLA to plead her case, and wound up the black sheep of the Rose Queens.

Now, twice divorced with two kids, the same killer body she had in high school and a midcentury modern house in Linda Vista, she made her living as a digital media maven, running the hugely popular gossip and entertainment site, She covered events and news stories from all over Los Angeles, including Hollywood. But she paid the rent with her local stories. Candy spilled about everything that matter to Pasadenans, from proper black-tie events to preschool blackballing. She was respected, fawned over and feared. On the inside, but not quite.

Candy, true to her Rose Court training, had rushed to my side when she heard the news about Merritt. God, everyone in town had heard the news before the Rose Parade was even over. How could you not read the headlines? Rose Parade Volunteer Killed by Float. And underneath, the details unfolded: Police Investigate Collision of Scooter and Giant Panda Float Sponsored by the Chinese Tourism Board.

In the 112-year history of the parade, no Tournament of Roses volunteer, or White Suiter, as they are known to locals because of the white suits and red ties they wear on New Year’s Day, had ever been killed during the actual parade. The White Suiters were CEOs and lawyers and bankers with deep social connections and a sense of civic duty, hand-chosen to oversee the parade, the football game and the myriad of events associated with the Tournament of Roses. They knew how to handle rain, cold, flower shortages, war protesters, crowds of millions—but a Death by Float? New territory for these pillars of society.

“Making Lasting Memories” was this year’s Rose Parade theme, and Merritt certainly did, as he plowed his official Honda scooter into the oncoming panda. He was texting at the time, but only I knew that.

And only I knew to whom.


My feet were starting to swell. They were jammed into the Ferragamo boots with heels that Tina Chau-Swenson said would elongate my calves. Tina, Candy and I met in a mothers’ group when our kids were infants; now we were best of friends. Once we figured out that all the third-generation Pasadena mothers with their 6-week-old infants already on the waitlist at St. Simon’s Preschool were not going to talk to us because, well, because Candy was disgraced, Tina was back in her skinny jeans, and I was not from there, we bonded.

If Candy represented Pasadena’s past, Tina Chau-Swenson embodied its future. New everything: money, style, citizenship. Tina was first generation, the daughter of wealthy Hong Kong merchants who saw the writing on the wall and high-tailed it to California with their newborn daughter and pillowcases full of cash before the Chinese came to get their island back from the British. Tina did what she was told: She was the first Chinese-American valedictorian at the exclusive Martindale School for Girls; she earned entrance to Yale and Yale Law School; she received an offer to practice will and trust litigation at Ye Olde Prestigious Law Firm in Los Angeles. She was right on track for a life- and fortune-affirming wedding to an old family friend with ties to Hong Kong when she met Anders Swenson at the law firm’s summer associates picnic. Tall, blond and Minnesotan, he was the next frontier for Tina’s assimilation. It was love at first sight.

Mr. and Mrs. Chau were less than pleased, but they only talked about Anders behind his back in Cantonese. At least he made partner. That appeased the Chaus a bit.

Tina and Anders had three lovely daughters, Lilly, Rosie and Heather, to prove just how right they were for each other. “And multiracial is so trendy now,” Tina cooed the other day. “It’s hip to have halfsies!” That was Tina in a nutshell: all style, some substance, no bull.

Tina Chau-Swenson was in charge of my funeral outfit, and she’d made me promise not to wear Naturalizers, my preferred footwear. “So unflattering, don’t do it,” Tina had warned. “People will notice. You know those Cloverfield moms.”

Yes, the Cloverfield moms. Rival school, rival committees. I’d never be a woman who cared about shoes, no matter how many years I spent in Pasadena, but Tina was right. Those Cloverfield mothers would notice every buckle. Why give them material for the next mothers’ coffee? So I’d zipped my short calves into the boots, wrapped my soft midsection in several layers of binding underwear and wedged my encased body into the Escada suit Tina bought at a downtown discount boutique. (You are a 10 if you believe you are a 10!) Then I fastened the triple strand of pearls my mother-in-law had given me on my wedding day and accepted the big Chanel sunglasses as loaners from Candy. On my very best day I looked like Kate Winslet on her very worst.

Now, two hours after the service, here in the green and chintz foyer of the venerable Pasadena Town Club, I just wanted to stop shaking hands and nodding my head, accepting condolences and “thoughts and prayers.” No more thoughts and prayers, I wanted to scream. Just get me out of these boots!

It was the suddenness of Merritt’s death that got most of them. I could sense what everyone was thinking: One day you could be president-in-waiting to run the Tournament of Roses, and the next, panda fodder. That was too much for people who had been living in the same town since birth.

Aiden had already asked to step out of the receiving line to go “hang with my friends.” Dozens of Millington classmates had come with their parents and were treating the funeral reception like a school dance, laughing, flirting, exchanging cell phone numbers. Adolescent narcissism can be a gift at a time like this. Go, I said, I’ll handle this. And I could.

My own family, my out-of-place parents and my handsome little brother Des, stood in the corner, munching on chicken-salad tea sandwiches (do they know there’s meat in there?) and making small talk with one another. Classic Castor family behavior when they came to visit. My parents, now in their late 60s, had repositioned themselves as fiber artists and gallery owners in the growing vacation-home market of central Oregon, which had completely transformed from my youth. High-end restaurants, bookstores and antique shops had replaced the empty storefronts. The area was now rich with Nike, Microsoft and Californian millionaires looking to decorate their large log homes with the giant pieces of tufted wool art that my father churned out. But my parents had not abandoned all of their hippie ways—hence the formal Birkenstocks and the clear violation of the club’s shirt-and-tie requirement for men. It was their way of sticking it to The Man. Even on the happiest of occasions, a trip to Pasadena was like a foreign-exchange program for them.

My mother, Nell, had been lovely over the last 24 hours. All those soul-searching workshops in the ‘70s made her particularly good at tragedy in later life. And the twelve-step program for marijuana addiction had given her clear eyes and a sense of purpose. She took a quiet and pragmatic approach to adversity: soup, tea, Joni Mitchell.

My father, Peter, was overwhelmed with emotion, not that he and Merritt ever had any deep bond. The two men had almost nothing in common, except me, Aiden and a love of backgammon. But my father, too, had a giant well of empathy bubbling inside, and he felt the sadness of the situation deeply. Unfortunately, unlike my mother, he could not control that well. He’d cried nonstop since landing, sobbing dramatically at the church, much to the discomfort of the entire Fairchild clan and the board of Fairchild Capital. Even Aiden started to laugh at the waterworks. Raw emotion was not a Fairchild family trait.

Letting it all hang out was a Castor family trait. Which is why I usually took Aiden to visit my parents in Oregon only when Merritt was away on business.

My brother Des, a ski patroller at Mt. Bachelor in the winter and a rafting guide on the Deschutes in the summer (yes, he was named after the river), was trying to rehydrate my father with white wine, a suspect choice. At least my dad had stopped crying.

Merritt’s mother, the imposing Millicent “Mitsy“ Forester Fairchild, stood near me but not next to me, which pretty much sums up my relationship with her for the last fifteen years. She had her own receiving line going, which normally would have annoyed me, but today I let it go. Merritt’s older sisters, Mimi and Mikki, flanked their mother in matching black suits. I was glad I didn’t have to stand with them. Their sorrow was genuine.

The receiving line went on for hours. I welcomed the mayor of Pasadena, the president of USC and various movers and shakers of various vaunted institutions. The headmistress of Millington, Adele Arnett and her husband, Michael, gave me deep hugs. Over Aiden’s nine years at the school, I’d come to know them quite well. Would I have to replace Merritt on the board of trustees? Or would they just name some other father who managed a fund of some sort? God knows there were plenty at Millington. Another worry.

Then came the squads of women who had stood next to me at games or school plays or holiday look-in tours. The women who had worked alongside me at charity events or religious-ed pizza-dough sales. So many of them were crying or choked up. Were they really that fond of Merritt? Or was it just that when they looked at me they thought of their own lives? I wasn’t sure, but it was touching. Their pain made me feel, well, good—which in turn made me feel odd.

Then, of course, came an army of slightly peeved White Suiters, whose thoughts and prayers, I’m guessing, included the hope that there would be no legal action on my part. Believe me, there wouldn’t be. I needed to move on.

Tina stood behind me, plying me with Arnold Palmers, the half-lemonade, half-iced tea concoction that fueled most of the lunches in town. There was no rum in the punch, but I was thinking  I could use a little right about now. Candy stood to my right, employing her amazing facial identification skills, honed over years at the best parties, whispering names and relationships as the crowd moved through the line. Dexter Olmstead, Historical Preservation commissioner of Pasadena. Nancy Tully, president of Near and Far Bank. Jeff Smithson, managing partner, the Capital Fund. I’d met all these people at all the fundraisers and galas and award dinners over the years, but I was never good with name recall, except when it came to history, and today, my brain was a sieve. Mercifully, the line was coming to an end when I heard Candy harrumph.

“What is she doing here? It’s just tacky to bring a news van to a funeral. I can’t believe the club even let her in the parking lot,” Candy fumed.

I looked up and my legs buckled inside my calf-elongating boots. Freaking Roshelle Simms, Fox 11 news anchor and the woman my husband was texting when he hit the float.

“I need a big fucking drink.”

Read the rest after November 1, when Helen of Pasadena goes on sale nationwide in print and e-book form. You can find it at your local bookstore or order it from Vroman’s or Amazon; e-book versions will be found on the Kindle Store, the iBook store and elsewhere in November.

25 Responses for “Helen of Pasadena: Chapter 1”

  1. Amy says:

    Love it! Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Looking forward to Helen’s journey.

  3. Ann says:

    A rivetting opening chapter. Can’t wait to read on.

  4. […] read the first chapter of Helen of Pasadena, click here. You will be linked to the Hometown Pasadena site, the home of my publisher Prospect Park Books. But […]

  5. Kathy T says:

    Can’t wait to read the rest!

  6. Chris in San Diego says:

    Excellent first chapter—can’t wait to read the rest of the book! Heading to Amazon right now. Go, Lian!!

  7. Sophie C. says:

    What a treat! Thanks for the preview, can’t wait to read the whole book!!

  8. Pam says:

    Oh Lian – it’s smart, funny and so readable! Can NOT wait to get it at my B&N on Nov. 1st. Do I dare take that day off to read it? (I can even hear YOUR voice as I read – I LOVE that!)

    Congrats on all of it and ENJOY!

    ARE YOU COMING EAST (Washington, DC area) on your book tour?

  9. Denise in So Cal says:

    Ahhh. I’m hooked! Can’t wait for more. Congrats, Lian.

  10. Cynthia says:

    Great beginning Lian, I look forward to reading the rest.

  11. Ma Schmidt says:

    SO GREAT! YOUR VOICE is shining through — Yeah! You go, girl!

  12. Sheila in San Celmente says:

    Loved the first chapter, can’t wait for the rest, my kind of book!

  13. Mel says:

    Love the insider-outsider dish on Pasadena. And with Rose Queen announcement yesterday,
    extra delicious. This novel is going to be like turning over a rock in the arroyo and finding pill bugs wearing clown noses!!!
    can’t wait!

  14. […] I’m very excited because at some point during the contest one lucky winner will receive a copy of the brand new novel, Helen of Pasadena, by Pasadenyite Lian Dolan. This book is so new it isn’t available until November 1st. But you can whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here. […]

  15. Joe Dunn says:

    I like it—looking forward to reading the rest on my Kindle while I’m in Mexico.

  16. Colleen Dunn Bates says:

    The “real” book is starting to appear in stores today…. Kindle version out next week!

  17. carolyn says:

    More please!

  18. […] I’m very excited because at some point during the contest one lucky winner will receive a copy of the brand new novel, Helen of Pasadena, by Pasadenamanian Lian Dolan. The book won’t be available on Amazon until November 1st but I saw it at Vroman’s yesterday. And you can whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here. […]

  19. […] Stick around, because one lucky winner will receive a copy of the brand new novel, Helen of Pasadena, by Pasadanish Lian Dolan. The book is now available on Amazon, at Vroman’s and at bookstores everywhere. Whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here. […]

  20. […] The book is now available at bookstores everywhere. Whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here, or meet Lian in person at Vroman’s November 14th at […]

  21. […] The book is now available at bookstores everywhere. Whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here, or meet Lian in person at Vroman’s November 14th at […]

  22. […] by our very own local Satellite Sister, Lian Dolan. Whet your Helen appetite by reading chapter one here and check out Lian’s list of appearances here. Go get her to sign your […]

  23. […] Academy and children’s theatre group Theater 360. In addition his friendly elves, the 2011 Rose Queen, Evanne Friedmann, and her royal court will be helping Santa light the 35-foot tree. While you […]

  24. […] 4. PRIZES! Oh baby! I know some of you have been waiting for today. I’m giving away my one and only, brand new copy of Prospect Park Media’s Helen of Pasadena by local Satellite Sister, Lian Dolan. Whet your Helen appetite–and find out why today’s contest question fits today’s prize–by reading chapter one here. […]

  25. […] Enter the contest here: online Purchase Helen of Pasadena: Vroman’s Watch the book trailer: Read the first chapter: […]



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