Book Review

'California': After the apocalypse, Edan Lepucki asks if you can ever go home again

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Edan Lepucki’s first novel, “California,” is set in an American future that could be just around the corner.

This engrossing book will appeal to those who like the post-apocalyptic genre, but another set should devour it as well: 20 and 30-something, fans of TV’s “The Bachelor,” newlyweds — anyone interested in the dynamics of two people who have recently become a couple.

By Edan Lepucki
Little, Brown and Co. ($26)

In “California,” Cal and Frida, married and not yet 30, have left a devastated Los Angeles and fled to the woods. Ms. Lepucki does not give a date or specific incident responsible for the city’s collapse, but instead sprinkles details throughout the story. She tells of condemned schools, shuttered stores and sagging houses. The roads have been left to rot because with little gas available, driving has become an unlikely option.

The main causes of this break down seems to have been economic and weather-related: earthquakes, rainstorms and wildfires. A flu epidemic cut the population in half since hospital emergency rooms charge admission – cash or gold only. “Petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been,” Ms. Lepucki writes.

Some still have means, and they are banded together in energy-independent Communities with border patrols to keep out the less fortunate. Many of these Communities take their names from the corporations that fund them, so some people live in Wal-Mart or Amazon.

(Note: Hachette publishes Ms. Lepucki and also Stephen Colbert. Amazon and Hachette have been locked in a pricing war, and Amazon blocked pre-orders of Hachette books. Mr. Colbert was talking about the situation on his show and encouraged people to buy “California” through his website. As a result, it debuted on The New York Times’ best-seller list.)

For two years Cal and Frida have been living in the forest in a shed they discovered, growing food and foraging, washing their few clothes in a stream. “The Internet, reading, going out to dinner, shopping were all gone – sex was the only fun,” Ms. Lepucki writes.

The author seems to be one of those hyper-aware young women who are sensitive to every raised eyebrow. What sets her apart is how simply and clearly she translates nuance to the page. She reveals Cal and Frida through their memories and the thoughts they have about each other.

Back in L.A., in the better days, Frida liked to get stoned and stay up all night baking bread. She believed that people were good and the world would only allow so much suffering. Now, she sometimes grieves for her dead brother Micah, who had been Cal’s roommate at the alternative college called Plank, where the all-male students learned farming in the morning and critical thinking in the afternoon.

Carrying on the school’s idealism, Cal finds satisfaction in work and is grateful for time and the silence of their forest home. Soon, however, others enter their solitary world.

There’s August, seemingly a peddler who trades goods off the back of his horse and buggy, and the Miller family, whose “children had no idea there was anything more to want.”

Ms. Lepucki slowly inserts a creepy plot into her story. Why can’t Sandy Miller stand to see the color red? What is the meaning of the weird Spikes that have been erected in the wilderness? Scariest of all for Cal and Frida, why are there no kids living on the Land, a settlement they eventually discover?

There are many surprises in “California,” but Ms. Lepucki’s focus never strays too far from the young couple and how well they’ve grown to know each other. For instance, she writes: “Cal thought he detected a microsecond of disappointment on her face.” Or when Cal spends time away: “ ‘Hell-o?’ she’d said, tapping her toe, pretending to be upset by his absentmindedness. Or pretending to be pretending.”

Ms. Lepucki doesn’t labor over her sentences – or least she doesn’t appear to. Many of her descriptions are charming. For example: “The moon above them was the white button of a sweater, tucked halfway closed.”

Although the world of “California” is nightmarish, the love that Ms. Lepucki describes is what everybody dreams of.

Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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