Publication date: July 8, 2014
There is no prelude in Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, no introduction to life in a time of normalcy. Instead, the novel begins with Cal and Frida living in a small house in a forest somewhere in the U.S. but we don’t know where because state names are no longer used. The dystopia is in full swing as America has finally collapsed due to climate change, the oil crisis, ineffectual government, and the widening divide between the rich and everyone else. Natural disasters have wiped out established cities and populations and disease has killed enough that the rich have fled to Communities—newly established towns with their own police forces, schools, hospitals, fire departments and restrictive requirements for admittance.
Cal and Frida left a dying Los Angeles two years ago and while they are managing to eke out an existence in the forest when Frida becomes pregnant they decide to strike out for what is known as a settlement or, as Lepucki makes clear, communities for everyone without the money to live in a Community. They reach the heavily protected outer boundaries of a place known as the Land where they are welcomed in but not as strangers. It turns out Frida’s brother Micah, a terrorist fighting the government, who she thought was dead, is the leader of this settlement. They are accepted provisionally until a vote with the entire group can be held. Micah also tells them there can be no mention of Frida’s pregnancy.
Lepucki mirrors the desiccation of the environment in her characters. Cal and Frida are supposed to be in love and yet evidence of this is scarce beyond their life in the forest. Once in the Land, as they split into separate jobs, she in the kitchen baking and he with the group’s leadership, they begin forming their own alliances, gathering their own information, keeping secrets and sometimes, even distrusting each other. Through her prose, Lepucki generates a flat affect in all of the characters that gives a monotone feeling to the novel. Everyone is guarded and secretive. No one questions anything, there is no talk of the past, all has been buried and yet, something is going on. Cal feels it brush against him for a moment
The life they’d created for themselves had been fragile and solid at once, beautiful in those ways, too: the shell of an egg, the stone of a pillar. Now things felt wrong.
but lets it go as he becomes more involved in how the Land really works.
California shows a country shrunken down to its most elemental level: rich versus poor—which provides fodder for discussion no matter which side you’re on. Lepucki then turns it upside down, showing the tangled underpinnings. The Land’s history, Micah’s leadership, and his plans for the future are all called into question. Events culminate at the group vote and California falls into a chaos that may have been designed by Lepucki or just got out of hand. The result is a jumble of action, an ending that feels misplaced, and the realization that what is left is exactly what always was. Dystopian, indeed.
Tomorrow night, August 12th, Edan Lepucki will be appearing at the Seattle Public Library with Sherman Alexie in an event co-sponsored by The Elliott Bay Book Company.
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Kate @ booksaremyfavouriteandbest says
I requested this book from Netgalley based purely on the cover – I love it! That said, it’s not my usual reading genre. Not sure how I’ll go with it.
Andi (@estellasrevenge) says
I’m afraid this one will just depress the hell out of me.
Shannon @ River City Reading says
I so wish I could just tweak the last 50 pages or so. I don’t need everything tied in a bow, but there were so many avenues left open that it felt a little too messy for me.
Completely agree. As if she were trying to tie it up but it didn’t work.
Allison @ The Book Wheel says
This sounds interesting! Isn’t this the book Colbert was plugging? I haven’t looked into it but it sounds like it might be worth the promotions for it.
This is the Colbert book- and what a lucky writer she is! Went from a printing of 10,000 to 60,000. Not quite sure it warrants that. I didn’t love the ending.
Jennine G. says
Oh new dystopian! I’m willing to try it!
Katie @ Words for Worms says
Oooh you had me at Dystopia. (I like them better when they’re written for grown ups!)
It is grown-up but the dystopia feels removed a bit.
Cynthia Robertson says
I was going to read this one, since dystopian is one of my favs, but after your review I think I’ll probably let it pass. Thanks for an honest review: Flat characters and a messy ending – glad to be forewarned.
I don’t know if the flat affect is what she wanted but it’s what I felt. Much of her prose is lovely. Went to her event last night with Sherman Alexie and it was great so I’m looking forward to what she does next.
tanya (52 books or bust) says
I guess I’m in the minority in thinking Oh Gawd, another dystopian?!?! When will get tired of these bleak rendering of the future?
I don’t think so, Tanya! I got into a twitter discussion about most fiction now being about the ruin and chaos of future America. Kind of exhausting.