California, by Edan Lepucki, starts with a fairly typical post-apocalyptic world. Society has collapsed. People struggle to survive in primitive conditions, except for a few pockets of rich people who isolate themselves communities.
But Lepucki takes a different approach to the genre and focuses on the effect that this environment has on the marriage of the two main characters, Cal and Frida. The chapters alternate between the the points of view of Frida and Cal. When I started the book, I didn’t notice the author’s name and to her credit I could not tell whether the author was male or female from her writing. Lepucki writes believably from both a man’s and a woman’s perspective.
The book starts slowly, building the characters and the situation. Cal and Frida live in primitive conditions, barely sustaining their own lives. Frida finds out that she is pregnant and this serves as the catalyst for change that drives the entire novel.
I don’t like to give spoilers in reviews. It all comes down to helping you understand whether you would like to spend your time and money on this book.
The majority of the book consists of introspection. You’ll grow to have a deep understanding of both Frida and Cal and you’ll understand how they can experience the same events and see things in different ways. It’s a beautiful use of an extraordinary situation to illustrate the all too ordinary issues that come up in marriage.
There is relatively little action if you think of action as physical movement. But action in a good novel can come from a character’s changing thoughts and the controlled revealing of information. Lepucki is masterful at moving the story along and gradually revealing the background that the reader needs to know to understand the characters and the situation. There is no awkward prologue that explains the world of the story.
California had one of my favorite characteristics of a book: no obvious villains. There are characters that you could end up thinking of as evil, but you see why they act the way they do. They aren’t simply mustache-twirling villains that do nothing but oppose the heroes simply for the sake of evilness.
I read the first few chapters, enjoying them, but didn’t feel particularly compelled to read outside of my normal routine reading time. But as the story develops, the tension builds and I found myself reading whenever I could find the time, enjoying the growing sense that something big is going to be revealed.
Many things are revealed. Some are surprising. Some are expected, but in the good sense, where you anticipate them from little clues the author has left that the characters don’t realize.
But the ending let me down. It didn’t resolve some of the big questions that had been so carefully developed and it raised more questions at the last minute. The ending was realistic. In real life things don’t always wrap up neatly. People don’t always defeat those who oppose them. But we read stories to have questions answered. To see what will happen. To have that sense of resolution, good or bad, that we so often miss in our lives.
So if you like beautiful writing where you will get to deeply know two characters, this could be the book for you. But if you need a story to come to a satisfying conclusion, I would skip it.