This is a Bildungsroman that covers several generations of a family, some of whose origins are in the eastern part of the United States, but eventually take root in the western part, specifically California, on a sprawling ranch that has its existence perpetually challenged by the L.A. Water Corporation. The patriarch, Rocky Rhodes, has a twin sister, who, herself is a solidifying force in running the ranch. Rocky and his wife give birth to twins, who are not filled with that same sense of purpose, duty and commitment. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is a monumental turning point for the United States and for the Rhodes family when a Japanese American internment camp is built adjacent to the ranch. Marianne Wiggins has created a vast array of characters whose personalities, motivations and interactions are both troubling and surprising as they encounter the challenges of war, ecological damage, malfeasance, greed, personal tragedies and a reckoning with what cannot be remade or recovered. The novel is also historical fiction with a robust complexity that is as incisive and probing as any major Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
The unique format, plot development, historical and ecological allusions, character development and extended metaphor of twins (familial and literary: Emerson and Thoreau) make this a modern masterpiece of monumental proportions that is riveting. There are other writers (such as John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Sanora Babb and Gretel Ehrilch) who have contributed to California history in their novels, short stories, poetry and essays, but Marianne Wiggins has written a novel quite different, which is more complex, involved and consequential. She approaches history through the developing family relationships, other relationships, and the evolving actions and ethical values of characters as they meet the challenges of two major events: Pearl Harbor and the Japanese American internment camps
Although the historical subjects are serious, Wiggins’ brilliant portrayal of human beings presents each one with a full array of behavior, both attributes and deficiencies, often providing comic relief in the form of interior thoughts. This is a work set within a past time period, written with candor and the author has written a cautionary, introductory note: "This is a work of fiction. I am rendering my sense of this historical time the way I remember it, and the language then was more incendiary than the language we use today. Today the language herein may be viewed as insensitive, but it is historically accurate." She is fearless and steadfast in writing that language so as to unearth past, and certainly present, stereotypes. The title, Properties of Thirst, is used to introduce over ten sections or chapters, almost like a Japanese koan, examining and revealing various concepts of thirst in the plot and character development. Marriane Wiggins’ novel is relevant in portraying a historical period and in creating characters whose actions are astonishingly timeless.