CaliforniaCalifornia by Edan Lepucki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

waited for this one for so long, i had to devour it in a day when it finally arrived. and very tasty it was, too.

so, the gist: Frida and Cal escape LA once climate change and the odd earthquake or two makes big cities in scenic california uninhabitable. off to the woods they go and Live Off the Land.

normally i would find a premise like that pretty silly–anything with Live Off the Land in it makes me eyeroll. because really, how can we Live Off the Land, unless the Land starts sprouting 7-11s? we who haven’t a frickin clue how to tan a deerskin, even if we knew how to get ahold of a deer, even if we knew what to do to skin it? how would we grow crops? how would we cook, or preserve food, or make thread, or soothe a fever? we can’t. we are Homo Techno, and even if we are forcibly unplugged from our digital lives, we don’t know shit about natural ones any more. skill sets that took centuries to accumulate have disappeared practically overnight.

but! the story had california in it, and i love california, so i thought i’d give it a whirl.

and Lepucki took care of my advance objections by giving us Cal, who went to school in a weird college that was half books and half learning how to Live Off the Land. ha! torpedoed moi, didn’t she? anyway. Cal is out in the woods with Frida, and they’re getting by. until they get her pregnant. and then Frida feels pretty sure they’d best find some kind of civilization.

Frida is an interesting character to me in that i can’t quite like her but i do understand her and she feels real to me. Cal, i feel a little warmer toward, but in the book’s switches back and forth between the two i can see the faults and weaknesses of both. it is all rather endearing, to be inside the heads of two people one feels lukewarm about, but who are indisputably human (as so many characters in fiction these days are not).

anyway they set out for the Spikes–weird defensive structures that seem a cross between found-art sculpture and defensive fortifications, and are creepy as fuck–and, surprisingly, are permitted in. after which they must figure out what the hell kind of weird group they’ve allied themselves to, because things are not as they seem.

plotting in this book pretty much rocks. it hits a really sweet spot–you want very much to find out what is going on and what happened in the past, but Lepucki does a great job of handing you that info in the context of Frida and Cal’s turbulent emotional seas. so as you learn more about the group, you learn more about Frida and Cal. kind of hard to explain, but i know a masterful job when i see it.

so, good plot, good characters, lots of interesting themes. but it does fall down on two counts.

one, it’s not in california. i know because not once does she mention poison oak. or much of any plant life that isn’t bog-standard or gardened. for most folk that really won’t matter, but as i say, i looked forward to this book in part because it was in my beloved california… and i really wanted to see a pro write about our natural world. but really, this book could be set anywhere.

the second criticism is rather more of a disappointment…

in our post-apocalyptic world, women’s spines seem to have been erased by climate change along with the reservoirs. i’m pretty convinced that once a person (male or female) has a right, it’s damned hard to take it away from them. and you know, except for that annoying 79 cents on the dollar thing and a pervasive sexist culture, we women are equal at least on paper. mostly.

but the women in this book–not forgetting that they’ve been traumatized–just give it all away. yep, back to the old bargain: you keep me from getting raped, and all my autonomy is yours.

not only is that pretty hard to swallow in terms of verisimilitude, it’s just kind of gross.

thanks to our pervasively sexist culture, women learn young when to operate in the shadows and when to be out in the open. yet these women seem to have mostly just effaced themselves. i can’t buy it–even in openly misogynist cultures, women have their own power structures and wield them to some effect. and these women still remember when everybody had to at least pay lip service to the idea of equality.

so that’s rather a disappointment. i don’t require that female characters be Wonder Women, just that they be whole women. that idea seems to fall apart in this book.

it does bring up more than enough other grist to chew on, though–what the real effects of climate change are likely to be, how power & money will always seek to protect themselves (and devil take the hindmost), how astonishingly easy it is to sell the soul.

so on the whole, i say, it’s worth a read. just, feminists? don’t be surprised if it reaches up to punch you in the face from time to time.