The West Coast Gossip Girl
At 19, Harvard student Isabel Kaplan has just published her first novel, Hancock Park, which exposes the excesses of L.A.’s wealthy high-school elite. Read the story behind the book.
My first young-adult novel, Hancock Park, is named after the neighborhood where I grew up in Los Angeles. I wrote the book during my junior and senior years of high school, and it just hit bookshelves June 30. I turned 19 last month, and I have just finished my freshman year at Harvard. Given all these things, I have no delusions of normalcy. However, I also believe that if you think anyone is “normal,” then you probably just don’t know him or her well enough.
Typical live auction items at the annual gala fundraiser might include a private home-cooked meal by Wolfgang Puck, walk-on parts on any number of hot TV shows, and a one-on-one basketball game with Magic Johnson.
My childhood experiences fall somewhere toward the middle of the Hollywood-upbringing bell curve. Compared to the very small Los Angeles circle I orbited in, my childhood bears some resemblance to “ordinary” (whatever that means). My parents never hired Cirque du Soleil to perform for my birthday party or arranged for me to ride into my bat mitzvah party on an elephant. I never walked red carpets or attended the Academy Awards, and neither of my parents has ever been featured on the cover of a tabloid (although yes, they have made occasional appearances on the inner pages).
However, compared to the whole city, state, or country, I imagine that I lived a very privileged childhood. My high-school senior trip was to the beach in Hawaii, my brother’s bar mitzvah party took place at the scenester-chic Roxy club on Sunset Boulevard, and the parents’ directory of my elementary school reads like a condensed guide to the Hollywood elite; typical live auction items at the annual gala fundraiser might include a private home-cooked meal by Wolfgang Puck, walk-on parts on any number of hot TV shows, and a one-on-one basketball game with Magic Johnson.
I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. I ran to college on the East Coast, eager to throw myself into a new world and call somewhere a little less Botoxed “home.” Sometimes I still hate the city that raised me, want to shout at Hollywood, erase TMZ, and scream at Perez Hilton, “I don’t care where Lindsay got high last night or whether Miley is keeping her abstinence pledge!”
But at other times, I tell college friends about how beautiful it is in California and how we think 50 degrees is freezing. I find myself surprised at the nostalgia in my voice as I explain how impossible it is to get anywhere without a car, and how, in the 10th grade, the popular thing to do was to go to the special nights at Hollywood clubs. For the young and glittery in L.A., party-promotion companies would rent out dance spaces and throw under-21 parties with names like “Seduction,” where tickets were at the very least $20, a bottle of water cost $5, and everyone was drunk upon arrival because alcohol wouldn’t be served inside. Think Gossip Girl with less preppiness, more blondes, and more sunscreen.
It was because of these outrageous experiences that I decided to base my first novel in the private-school world of Los Angeles. The protagonist of Hancock Park, Becky Miller, struggles to find her place in the City of Angels. I wanted to write a book that would explore adolescence through the lens of a girl in the Hollywood bubble. Becky deals with teenage angst that most teens can relate to—sparring parents, mean girls, alcohol, boys, and photos that should never have ended up on Facebook—as well as the perils of overprescribing psychiatrists, over-the-top underage parties, and what might happen if your mother’s West Hollywood apartment gets flooded (answer: a fight with the insurance company and a move into the Beverly Hills Four Seasons).
When I wrote Hancock Park, Los Angeles was the only city I had ever lived in. Now, a year into college, I believe I’ve gained a little bit of perspective—although, I will be the first to admit, not that much perspective. The story I would write about Los Angeles now would be different from the story I wrote when I was 17, and that’s the beauty of the passage of time and an increasingly broadened lens.
Still, there are instances in my life that make me think I may never know what a “regular” American childhood feels like.
One weekday afternoon last month in Los Angeles (75 degrees and sunny, of course), I reunited with two of my close friends from high school at the Grove, an outdoor mall just outside Hancock Park. We had successfully completed our first year at college and our first year away from home, and with the comfortable familiarity of girls with years of friendship and history behind them, we began to compare weird, crazy, and out of this world (or, um, out of L.A.) stories from college.
“And did you have any idea that North Face was such a thing?” I asked of the East Coast uniform.
“I know, right? It’s crazy!” Grace, who goes to school at Grinnell, in Iowa, said.
“North Face? What?” Jen asked. Jen goes to Claremont McKenna, which, though not quite in Los Angeles, is still California.
“I think there’s a North Face store here,” I offered, probably unhelpfully. “I’ve driven by, on Beverly, in Beverly Hills. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone go inside, though.”
“There’s this jacket, black fleece zip-up, and everyone has it,” Grace said, and I nodded in agreement.
The Los Angeles version of North Face would probably be the Ron Herman Free City sweatshirt. I’ve tried explaining Free City to my friends at Harvard. They can’t understand the phenomenon. I don’t understand it, even.
“So, basically, they’re sweatshirts that cost about $150, and the idea is that they look really worn-in when you buy them—some of them have holes, even,” I explained, realizing that the more I say about the matter, the crazier my college friends find my version of Los Angeles culture.
Grace, Jen, and I continued to discuss our college worlds: “Also, I had no idea that it was so unusual to hire limos for semiformals.”
“Oh, God—do you remember the time we took a limo to that ninth-grade dance? That was so embarrassing! Limos were fine for semiformal, but a little too much for a ninth-grade dance.”
“A little too much?” We laughed, remembering. A friend’s dad hired that limo as a surprise.
That same week, I met up with another friend from L.A. “Want to hear something amazing? My college roommate had never heard of Perez Hilton!” I told him, beaming.
“What? That’s so crazy, so messed up!”
I shook my head, eyes wide. “It’s not messed up—it’s fantastic!” My friend continued to shake his head. “Come on,” I said. “Just think, none of that celebrity gossip. Admit it, there’s something kind of fantastic about it.”
“No, that’s crazy.”
When I told Leah, my roommate, about Perez Hilton and Free City, she said the same thing: “That’s crazy.” So, the question is, who’s crazy—us or them? And, which “us” do I belong to?
My goal in writing Hancock Park was to explore what it means to live an “L.A. childhood,” and when I started the book, I was still in the process of living that life myself. At the time, I hoped to distinguish myself from Los Angeles, especially the parts of the city that tormented me the most. I’ve only spent one year away, and I’m not sure that I have any answers—at least, not yet.
Did we grow up too fast in Hancock Park? Probably. Would I raise my kids there? Maybe; I’m not sure. Is it home? Yes. Los Angeles is the city that raised me, the lens through which I first learned to view the world and which I now change and adjust as my perspective deepens. As The Decemberists sing, for better or for worse (or at least for now), “Los Angeles, I’m yours.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Isabel Kaplan is a student at Harvard University. Her first novel, Hancock Park, was published this summer by HarperCollins.