ONE ICONIC FAMILY. ONE SUMMER OF SECRETS. THE DAZZLING SPIRIT OF 1970S CALIFORNIA.
For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods… until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.
Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.
A Girl, Her Cousin, and a Waterfall
I rattle the padlock on the gate, strum my fingers along the cold chain-link fence.
I own this place.
Maybe if I repeat it often enough I’ll believe it.
All along the base of the fence are tributes: shells, notes, sketches, bunches of flowers. Some still fresh, some so old the petals are crisp as parchment. I follow the fence uphill, along the coast side, and stop at a wooden, waist-high sign marking the path up to the waterfall. It wasn’t here the summer I visited.
The sign is covered in words and drawings, so tattooed-over by fan messages that you can barely read the official one. I run my fingertips over the engravings: initials, peace symbols, Thank you’s, I Love You’s. Fragments of favorite lyrics. After coming so far to visit the legendary estate, people need to do something, leave their mark, if only with a rock on fog-softened wood.
Song titles from my uncle’s final album, Three, are carved everywhere. “Heart, Home, Hope.”
“Leaf, Shell, Raindrop.”
“Angel, Lion, Willow.” Someone has etched that last one in symbols instead of words. The angel refers to Angela, my aunt. The lion is my uncle Graham.
And the willow tree. Willa, my cousin.
I have a pointy metal travel nail file in my suitcase; I could add my message to the rest, my own tribute to this place, to the Kingstons. To try to explain what happened the summer I spent here. I could tell it like one of the campfire tales I used to spin for Willa.
This is the story of a girl, her cousin, and a waterfall…
But there’s no time for that, not with only seven days to clear the house for sale. Back at the gate, where Toby’s asleep in his cat carrier in the shade, I dig in my overnight bag for the keys. They came in a FedEx with a fat stack of documents I must’ve read on the plane from Boston a dozen times—thousands of words, all dressed up in legal jargon. When it’s so simple, really. Everything inside that fence is mine now, whether I want it or not.
I unlock the gate, lift the metal shackle, and walk uphill to the highest point, where the gravel widens into a parking lot, then fades away into grass. The field opens out below me just like I remember. We called it “the bowl,” because of the way the edges curve up all around it. A golden bowl scooped into the hills, rimmed on three sides by dark green woods. The house, a quarter mile ahead of me at the top of the far slope, is a pale smudge in the fir trees.
I stop to take it in, this piece of land I now own. The Sandcastle, everyone called it.
Without the neighbors’ goats and Graham’s guests to keep the grass down, the field has grown wild, many of the yellow weeds high as my belly button.
Willa stood here with me once and showed me how from this angle the estate resembled a sun. The kind a child would draw, with a happy face inside. Once I saw it, it was impossible to un-see:
The round, straw-colored field, trails squiggling off to the woods in every direction, like rays. The left eye—the campfire circle. The right eye—the blue aboveground pool. The nose was the vertical line of picnic benches in the middle of the circle that served as our communal outdoor dining table. The smile was the curving line of parked cars and motorcycles and campers.
All that’s gone now, save for the pool, which is squinting, collapsed, moldy green instead of its old bright blue.
I should go back for my bag and Toby but I can’t resist—I move on, down to the center of the field. Far to my right in the woods, the brown roofline of the biggest A-frame cabin, Kingfisher, pokes through the firs. But no other cabins are visible, the foliage is so thick now. Good. Each alteration from the place of my memories gives me confidence. I can handle this for a week. One peaceful, private week to box things up and send them away.
“Sure you don’t want me to come help?” Paul had asked when he dropped me at the airport this morning. “We could squeeze in a romantic weekend somewhere. I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco.”
“You have summer school classes, remember? Anyway, it’ll be totally boring, believe me.”
I’d told him—earnest, sweet Paul, who all the sixth-graders at the elementary school where we work hope they get as their teacher and who wants to marry me—that the trip was no big deal. That I’d be away for a week because my aunt in California passed away. That I barely knew her and just had to help pack up her old place to get it ready for sale.
He believed me.
I didn’t tell him that the “old place” is a stunning, sprawling property perched over the Pacific, studded with cabins and outbuildings and a legendary basement recording studio. That the land bubbles with natural hot springs and creeks and waterfalls.
Or that I’ve inherited it. All of it. The fields, the woods, the house, the studio. And my uncle’s music catalog.
I didn’t tell him that I visited here once as a teenager, or that for a little while, a long time ago, I was sure I’d stay forever.
Excerpted from Lady Sunshine @ 2021 by Amy Mason Doan, used with permission by Graydon House.
About the Author
AMY MASON DOAN is the author of The Summer List and Summer Hours. She earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley and an MA in journalism from Stanford University, and has written for The Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes, among other publications. She grew up in Danville, California, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter.
The book is out tomorrow and you can find it at one of the links below!