California Needs a Few Good Characters
- Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2014 24 Jul
Author: Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
It’s hard not to have high expectations for a novel that comes highly recommended by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (that’s A Visit From the Goon Squad author Jennifer Egan) and popular political satirist Stephen Colbert. But considering they probably wouldn’t intentionally champion something mediocre because they’ve got reps to maintain, one still can’t help wondering if they read the same book as I did.
It’s not that California doesn’t have a fascinating premise. Even among the many dystopian novels that grace the shelves of your local bookstore these days, author Edan Lepucki does a masterful job of creating a truly believable and thoroughly terrifying post-apocalyptic America. But rather than dwell on the circumstances that led to mankind’s rather dubious fate, Lepucki focuses on the human element, namely what does a modern marriage look like once the world has ended? And what should a couple do when they discover they’re about to bring a child into an existence that isn’t exactly teeming with possibility?
These are all intriguing questions, but the characters that Lepucki selected for the journey, former Los Angeles residents Cal and Frida, are a bad fit right from the start. Not all protagonists need to be likeable for a story to succeed, but a redeeming quality or two certainly wouldn’t hurt.
No doubt, the world is filled with dysfunctional couples who can barely co-exist, let alone thrive, but forcing Cal and Frida to rely on each other for every emotional need is an annoying exercise in futility. It’s clear these are two people who know how to hurt each other, and throwing them into another community of misfits doesn’t exactly help the cause. If anything, it makes California feel like a second-rate soap opera, thanks to eye-rolling turns of plot better suited for Days of Our Lives than an absolute must-read.
Underscoring the preposterousness of the plot and its accompanying chess pieces is a surprisingly tone-deaf approach to dialogue. Not only does Lepucki have a bad habit of repeating herself (for instance, “raised eyebrows” show up an inordinate amount of times), but the characters, especially Frida, simply don’t come across as actual living, breathing humans.
Needless to say, a good idea can go bad in a hurry if the execution is off, and that’s exactly what happens with California. Sure, not every dystopian novel is going to be on par with, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but when something is as celebrated as California is, one can’t help hoping for more.