If the world’s second-most annoying couple lives in the woods, will we care?
Despite great potential, California is a mess of a navel-gazing couple looking for
love people in all the wrong places. Though the setting is post-societal breakdown, don’t be fooled: it’s merely a backdrop for normal early-adult angst.
Narrative shifts time frequently as the main characters Cal and Frida think about their lives to this date, from their time in L.A. to years before to their more recent times living in a shed. For the most part, the shifts are handled well. Voice also goes back and forth between Cal and Frida, giving the reader insight into their inner thoughts. This is important because most of the words have dried up between them and if we relied on dialogue or action, nothing would happen. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader wishing for something more exciting than Cal reminiscing about college and his friendship with Micah, or Frida thinking about baking at the market and hero-worshiping younger brother Micah.
“There were only two years at Plank. If you were admitted, it was free, but there was no real degree at the end. Most of the boys transferred to one of the Ivy Leagues, went traveling, or fell off the map… Many Plankers wanted to fight injustice and poverty throughout the world, though certainly not with religion” (p.36).
Which leads me to problem #2, plot. Plotting is weak, existing mostly as a framework for characterization. Frida may or may not be pregnant (she’s three weeks late! she must be pregnant! because nutrient deprived women are never late!) so she’s suddenly determined to find more people. Cal is equally determined to wrap her in bubble wrap, despite the fact that there is no bubble wrap. They head off and –surprise! People! What follows reminds me a great deal of The Walking Dead, season two, when the group sits around the farmhouse talking and washing clothes. There’s lots and lots of clothes-washing and chopping vegetables for the ladies, lots of physical labor for the men. And showering. The ending is obvious enough that the biggest suspense is whether or not Frida will awaken to reality. For those who like the action side of the apocalypse, forget it.
And the setting. Half the reason we tune in to apocalypse stories is to try and read the tea leaves of current civilization. Sadly, details in California are sadly lacking. There are intriguing hints of cumulative disasters (social unrest, shortages, environmental degradation) loosely tied to increasing economic disparities. I found myself reading to understand how this situation occurred as much as the actual plot (see paragraph above), but ended up disappointed. Rich people retreated to Communities, which are basically enclaves for people with resources, but it’s not particularly clear how those resources remain available. I feel like Lepucki borrowed her setting from popular young adult dystopia more than creating a concrete vision. Eventually the incompleteness of the world-building ends up hampering story logic.
With all of that, I might have enjoyed it had either of the main characters been particularly likeable. Frida is an immature nitwit who takes a ‘Vicodin’ because she misses being high and who hoards secrets from her husband like a brand-new turkey baster. Cal is stuck between reliving glory days at college and thinking testosterone-laden thoughts about his wife. It’s almost as if they weren’t two people living on the edge of nowhere, scraping out a survival, the way they obsessively ruminate about the past. Frida is particularly stupid:
“Today, in the kitchen,” Cal said, “did you get an idea of where they’re getting all their food from? …Where are they storing everything? Did they have… anything canned?”
“I wasn’t on a recon mission, Cal.”
No, she wasn’t on a recon mission. Just because they’ve been substance hunter-gatherers for the last two years and have suddenly entered a community that may or may not accept them as members, why should she care about food sources? Why should she try to understand how the community works?
Then there’s Frida and Cal living alone in a house: “She loved the hushed quality of her steps along the path–Cal was religious abut keeping it clear” (p.77). Why? And has Lepucki been in a temperate forest for more than five minutes? Keeping it clear would be a daily activity, and it’s a sign saying, “people here!”
But Frida isn’t only stupid, she’s woefully mercurial. One minute it’s all about the baby, “Something about how she’d need to stay healthy, that the stakes were higher now that she might be pregnant.” Then literally, two minutes later, with the Vicodin: “A buzz: that’s what she wanted” (p.48)
Then there’s Cal, who continues to refer to Frida as “my wife” first, then adds her name almost as an afterthought. He actually has thoughts worrying about the possibility that the people they meet will be all male and want to take Frida away. It’s really the wrong kind of perspective to get me to enjoy a character.
Goin’ back to Cali? I don’t think so.
Two stars, not because I think it was an ‘okay’ read, but because it was written more competently than a one star book.