At the beginning of Edan Lepucki’s engrossing debut novel California, we meet Cal and Frida, a self-sufficient and isolated married couple whose names, if smooshed together, approximate the title of the book. Coincidence? Doubtful. Very little in this carefully plotted apocalyptic story seems arbitrary. Cal and Frida are the heart of California the book, but they are also the stand-ins for what remains of California, the state.
And what is the state of their union? It's Complicated.
Originally from a future version of Los Angeles, Cal, a gardener, and Frida, a baker, have escaped the lawless wasteland that the city has become after chaos set off by nationwide disasters caused by global warming. Eschewing the exclusive gated “Communities” developed to house and protect those rich enough to afford special treatment, they settle by themselves in the wilderness. To survive, they draw on their reserves of affection for each other, their coping skills, and the training Cal received as a student at an usual college called Plank, where he and the other male students learned to live off the land—as well as debate theory and dream of women.
Cal and Frida discover that their arrangement is even more tenuous than it seems. First they encounter a family of four wary, mysterious neighbors who become their friends and wind up dead. Then Frida realizes that she might be pregnant herself.
Should she and Cal stay where they are despite the change in their circumstances? Or should they try to rejoin humanity, for their own sake as well as their future child’s? They know that a cluster of settlers live some miles away, beyond what they have heard called the Spikes. Curiosity propels them, even as it battles with their common sense.
Their decision becomes a practical one as well as an ethical one, and it takes into account Frida’s long-lost brother Micah, who was Cal’s college roommate before he became a radical revolutionary. They have to leave their Garden of Eden, their joint solitude in the natural world, because, as the death of the only nearby family reminds them, Gardens are not intended to be lived in forever. And Gardens, anyway, come with snakes.
In the settlement they find beyond the Spikes, set up to be part hippie commune and part dictatorial cult, Cal and Frida’s closeness is tested by their secrets, which they have hoarded for so long and held onto so tightly they cannot even remember whom they are trying to protect.
One of those secrets, in Frida’s case, is her chosen memento of her older, easier, consumerist life: a turkey baster.
“Frida held the baster by its plastic bulb, lifting it above her head. She imagined the store had probably gone feral soon after they left, like the rest of the businesses at that stupid outdoor mall. The Grove, it was called. Maybe in these two years it had sprouted some trees, finally earned its name. The famous trolley, rusted, its bell looted. The fountain, which had once lured tourists and toddlers to its edge, was probably dry; that, or sludgy with poison.”
The more useless the baster becomes, the less willing Frida is to part with it or to acknowledge its importance. That sentimentality defines her in much the same way as her vocation (though she is happy to bake bread, she revels in desserts) and Cal’s impatience with her becomes easy to understand.
As a story, California could use some magic. At times, its messages feel inevitable, unsurprising, which makes sense for a book that seems to draw inspiration from Genesis. Still, Lepucki’s energy and efficiency keep the pace brisk. Her world-building skills bring to mind Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy as well as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, MaddAdam, and The Year of the Flood.
She brings literary flair and character development to a science fiction/fantasy conceit, one she could easily carry on through a sequel. Indeed, by the end, she seems ready to launch right into Part II. (Readers, let us take a moment to celebrate that sequels have gone highbrow! Award-winning mainstream writers Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson are embracing them, and even among the Pulitzer set, Jane Smiley is returning to the Iowa of A Thousand Acres in her upcoming novel, Some Luck.)
For decades now, California the state has represented luxury and escape, an affluent, warm-weather, orange-scented dream for those of us unlucky enough to live under less sunny skies. California the book is a welcome challenge to those assumptions, grittier, complicated and—despite the dystopian premise—real. Lepucki's success is that it remains as engaging, and even more rewarding than the dream.
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