In Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California, published in 2014, Cal and Frida are a young couple trying to eke out a living in a post-apocalyptic Californian wilderness. Their relationship has fared relatively well during their two years of near-isolation, but the intrusion of strangers — first a small family, then Frida’s unexpected pregnancy, and later a commune with its own deep problems and secrets — reveals severe cracks in their seemingly perfect marriage.
Perhaps post-apocalyptic isn’t the right descriptor for the time setting. “Mid-apocalyptic” might be better, as the downfall of global society is due to neither nuclear winter, nor global pandemic, nor any of the currently fashionable world-killers. What Lepucki has created is a logical and refreshing extension of present-day problems into the year 2050, resulting in an America where heating oil, electricity, commonly manufactured goods, college educations, and even Internet access are prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest elite. Extreme weather events have decimated or outright destroyed many areas — a blizzard has erased Cleveland and surrounding areas from the map and the Northeast and Northwest regions have been razed by horrific storms. Many university graduates, unable to pay their astronomical student debt, have resorted to public suicide as a form of social protest. The richest members of society have retreated to walled Communities, taking their luxuries and money with them. Everyone left behind must trade useful services or melted-down jewelry for food or clothing, as money is worthless outside the Communities.
Survival is the primary preoccupation in California: the struggle to gather enough food and clean water to make it from each day to the next; the balance of an individual self against one’s need for socialization and acceptance; one’s own desires versus the needs of a community. Classic themes are examined, like Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man, in interesting and frequently satisfying ways. Cal, who grew up on a farm and went to a college which would have made Henry David Thoreau proud, seems to be the most successful at survival in any situation. Rather than actively resisting the world around him, he moves within it, quickly adapting to his surroundings without ever altering his essential self. It’s this very flexibility and ingenuity which has kept him and Frida alive for so long — he’s the one who begins and maintains their vegetable garden, he hunts for game in the redwood forest surrounding their little cabin, and he allows himself to become a part of the Land’s inner circle in order to determine who to trust and what the real dangers may be.
Frida is a maddening character because she makes terrible decisions and is ridiculously immature (despite being thirty years old, she frequently behaves like a spoiled child), but Lepucki backs up Frida’s actions with solid reasoning. Frida’s favorite way to maintain what she considers to be a level emotional playing field with Cal is to keep secrets from him — big, life-changing secrets, like “I’m pregnant,” or “I saw a coyote while I got lost and it nearly attacked me,” or “I broke the one promise we made to each other before leaving Los Angeles.” After they join up with the cult-like group living on the Land, Frida learns important information which is crucial to the existence and safety of her growing family, and yet she hides it from Cal because she’s angry with him for wanting to get away from the Land. Lepucki does explain some of Frida’s flaws — Cal is her first real relationship, she lived at home well into her twenties because she couldn’t afford a place of her own, and she obviously wasn’t expected to grow up or do much with herself as an adult. It’s a nice change to read a story wherein the author is aware of her characters’ faults and reveals them without too many excuses. I don’t like Frida, but I personally know people like her, and they are just as teeth-grindingly frustrating in real life as Frida is on the page.
The leader/Big Man In Charge of the Land is a charismatic, intelligent, completely untrustworthy character. Cal refers to him as a televangelist, which is spot-on, but more insight is needed regarding the leader’s true plans and motivations; I’d even have accepted a movie-villain-style monologue full of bombast and grandeur if it clarified the very murky plans-within-plans he seems to have going on.
On a microcosmic scale, the world-building in California is solid. But when the focus widens to the Land and the Communities, details become confusing. How is Hershey’s baking cocoa still available (specifically that brand, and in excellent condition) if good baking supplies haven’t been available for years? Who’s making it, and how is it being shipped around a country which is supposedly in crisis? Where are items like shaving razors, soap, shampoo, antibiotics, and birth control pills coming from? How are the Communities manufacturing or receiving electrical power and construction materials? My hope is that California is the first of a series, or at least part of a duology or trilogy, because the ending is far too abrupt and answers absolutely none of my questions — not to mention that none of the issues are resolved with regards to tension between the residents of the Land and the residents of the Community of Pines.
Aside from one major plot contrivance that I really didn’t like, this was a good read. I’ll spoil nothing, because I want readers to form their own opinions, but the reveal of it was early enough and so off-putting that I briefly put the book down and considered whether I wanted to continue reading. I did go on, and I’m glad that I did, but I’m still annoyed about it weeks after finishing the book. All in all, California was an original and largely enjoyable read, and I do recommend it to fans of apocalyptic fiction who enjoy reading about the self-destructive things people do when put under pressure.
This looks interesting, and it’s a great review… but I hate your label “mid-apocalyptic”! It sounds like a Katharine Hepburn zombie movie…
I’m self-pubbing some not-quite-apocalyptic-yet fiction next week, but when I blogged about the books/films which inspired my stories (du Maurier/Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, and John Christopher’s “The Death of Grass”) I needed a better label than NQAY. I coined my own portmanteau word for the genre (because I’m devastatingly modest):
That could catch on, right? :-)
You can see my little articles here, if you’re interested: wp.me/pAM9d-JU
Hi, Andrew! I’m curious as to how mid-apocalyptic sounds like a Katherine Hepburn zombie movie to you. That’s such a specific descriptor!
I was thinking of her accent (and making a pun so terrible as to be unworthy of voicing) – “mid-Atlantic” it was called, wasn’t it?
I took California home from my local library and quickly checked the Goodreads ratings. They were very underwhelming so I set my expectations pretty low. A found this book to be a very pleasant surprise. There was certainly room for improvement but it’s a solid effort! Easy 3 1/2 stars.
It certainly doesn’t read like a debut novel, to be sure, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!