We read some books because of the buzz, right? The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken. Gone Girl or The Goldfinch. If you’re on the fence about the latest somewhat buzzy book, Edan Lepucki’s California – maybe wait for the movie. Alternatively, buy the book because you really like Stephen Colbert or want to take a position in a publisher’s business dispute with Amazon – both perfectly legitimate reasons!
California has been much in the news lately courtesy of Colbert. Amazon and the book’s publisher, Hachette, had been unable to reach agreement on the prices to be charged for Hachette’s books at Amazon.com. Amazon delayed deliveries of California and other books as a not-so-gentle reminder to Hachette of the size of the gorilla in the room. Stephen Colbert (whose books are published by Hachette) criticized Amazon’s tactics and encouraged buyers to order one book in particular, California, through independent booksellers as a show of force. For a particularly interesting take on the dispute, check out this recent article in The Guardian.
California is a dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future, after environmental disaster has ravaged the earth. This is the kind of book I love: I started in on futuristic and fantasy novels at an early age with all 14 of Frank Baum’s Oz books and have never looked back. Despite how much I wanted to embrace it, cheer for it, feast on it, LOVE it – Lepucki’s novel disappointed me.
In California, young marrieds Cal and Frida leave a dangerous Los Angeles for the woods of California, living an isolated but generally safe survivalist life there until Frida becomes pregnant. Her desire to find a community becomes almost as strong as the desire for the forbidden rapunzel in the fairy tale – and her husband is willing to take enormous risks to find it. We’re not squarely in fairy tale territory, though. She’s all in on the risks, and there are no happy endings once they find that community. They each discover the darkness in the human heart in the midst of community – and between themselves.
I can see this book on the silver screen. It’s got great visuals and some exciting action. The movie version would correct the problems in the book’s pacing. The book is fast and interesting at first, followed by a long and tedious middle and then a breakneck-speed ending. I felt like I got out of a Porsche and into a horse and buggy ride before a last-second rocket launch.
A screenwriter should avoid letting Frida voice this thought (my italics): “She must have seemed like such a moron to August [their trading partner], getting so high she wept for her dead brother. As if August cared about her stupid family drama. Oh goody: one more whiny white girl! Boohoo Frida. But he had listened, hadn’t he?” Also, in the movie version, we’d be spared some of the following writing (my italics):
Example 1: “What happened to my brother?” she [Frida] asked as they fell asleep, and then, “Why is he like that?” They weren’t questions anyone had answers to.
Example 2: “She [Frida] realized how protective she’d become of Anika. She really cared about her.“
This writing isn’t terrible. It’s just dull.
One thing a screenwriter probably wouldn’t do is change the fundamentals of the relationship between Cal and Frida. They lie to each other from beginning to end, the lies increasing in both magnitude and frequency. I found this deeply depressing, in the same way that I found Gone Girl depressing. I finished Gone Girl hungry for a different read – and I felt the same way after finishing California.
It isn’t really fair, but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that one line of the book just put me in a bad mood. Frida has discovered that she and Cal are not alone in the woods, when she spots another woman washing some clothes in a stream. The woman, Sandy, crosses over to greet Frida. “She [Frida] was trying to keep her eyes off Sandy’s chest. Her overalls had shifted in her commute across the water, and one breast, all nipple, peeped out from the bib, its tip long and knobby. It reminded Frida of a caterpillar.” Oh, that just gives me the heebie-jeebies. I can’t give this book wholeheartedly to anyone, not even my good friend and fellow dystopian enthusiast, Caroline Trost. If you like this genre, try the nuanced, beautiful, suspenseful On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee; you can find my short reviews at Styleblueprint and NFocus.