California, by Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
393 pages, hardcover
Published: July 2014
In a post-apocalyptic near future, a young couple cling to one another in passion and isolation among the trees of the west coast US wilderness. Discovering their nearest neighbors (and only friends) dead, Cal (California) and Frida drop into deeper fear for the future. Discovering that she’s pregnant, Frida feels a greater need for stability, safety, and those vanished comforts of their past life before civilization’s collapse. As her mind turns to thoughts of the potential joys and fragility of relationship and family, Frida is reminded of the tragic actions and death of her brother. Cal and Frida leave their little piece of isolation to seek out a nearby secretive community and the support that the people there could potentially give. They find that Frida’s name is recognized by members of the community and that the town’s apparent safety is built around dark secrets and shadows of the past.
Works such as this that fall within the folds of literary post-apocalyptic fiction can be tricky beasts. The genre tends to bypass exploration of the means by which collapse occurred (or any action-packed epic scale looks at what the world has become) to instead focus on psychological effects on people and their relationships. Sharing similar themes structured around family and community these more literary works of post-apocalypticism end up seeming a lot alike. With Cormac McCarthy’s The Road these themes centered on a father and son. Here in California the core is Frida, her state of mind and particularly her definition in relation to the men in her life.
And here is where I run into my biggest problem with Lepucki’s novel: Frida is exceptionally weak. She appears primarily driven largely by biological urges of sex motherhood, and the memories of her brother. Much of the novel rests on her apparent need for seeking safety and solace in either her brother or in Cal (the latter who is equally weak-willed). Frida and Cal allow much to happen to them and don’t seem to have much ability to direct events in the novel, and despite questioning themselves seem incapable of actually questioning one another adequately to avoid those misunderstandings that help drive the plot.
With Frida being so defined as a character by the men around her and her biological circumstances I was rather surprised to find the novel is written by a woman. And I’m honestly equally puzzled by how strongly many female reviewers have loved this book. After reading a few misogynistic comments directed at Frida relatively early in the novel I considered abandoning it. I wrote a colleague about this and she told me that she had abandoned reading California for the same feelings.
The end of the novel is dark and discomforting in terms of its plot, leading me to wonder if this is simply the whole point of the novel, to tell a story about a pair of characters who are unlikable and doomed in their faults. Yet, whether written intentionally to convey these kinds of interpretations and reactions I had, or not, I simply didn’t find California that notable of an addition to the rather over-crowded post-apocalyptic field.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.