Lepucki’s main characters, the 20-somethings Frida Ellis and Calvin Friedman, live in a near-future in which the most privileged have withdrawn to communities (called Communities) defended by private security forces. The less fortunate — those of them who haven’t died from the flu, anyway — eke out an existence in failing cities … Because the wilderness doesn’t hold much threat, the book derives most of its tension from the friction that exists between Frida and Cal when they’re not blissful in bed. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why they’re arguing, though, and other times it’s equally difficult to understand why they’re not … The last chapter of California, with its emphasis on security over freedom, supports a reading in which Frida and Cal never had a chance, still unable to make the connection between the ills of a runaway consumer society and environmental devastation.
Lepucki focuses on the complexities of basic human emotions, testing allegiances and letting secrets unravel even the most steadfast of survivors, all while illustrating how impossible it is to change what inherently makes us human … Woven into the plot are Frida and Cal's memories of their previous lives and their now-lost family, including Frida's younger brother, Micah, who brought the couple together years before at an all-boys university named Plank … Murky events, a blurry past and a questionable chronology mar Lepucki's entry into the literary post-apocalypse genre. Clear-cut rules of the world are critical and having an unsteady authorial hand leads to a shaky foundation...Lepucki's cautious dystopia never quite asks the right questions of us, ultimately to the detriment of the novel.
Frida isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive. She and her husband, Cal, have fled the ruins of Los Angeles in the wake of earthquakes and financial collapse … Lepucki has armed her novel with a stunning twist, and its fallout is thrilling. Beyond that, the book’s critique of our culture’s ridiculous back-to-the-land fantasies is amusing. Yet some of her choices are less convincing … Still, Frida’s self-absorption has its uses: For one, it allows Lepucki to detail the minutiae of survivalist life. Until they join the Spike People, who have access to a surprising range of consumer goods, getting clean is impossible, and fungi are free to flourish. ‘Even her knees had smelled.’ Selfishness also means self-preservation, which is a kinder interpretation of Frida’s immaturity.
One of the book's central questions has to do with what we throw away, and what we keep, what we value mistakenly, and the price we pay for hanging on. The world Frida and Cal live in has been slowly eroded by all the ways humans have changed the planet (there's a terrible future, alas, in plastics) and by our mad appetite for endless objects, here broken and turned into defense armatures … The book, for both characters and reader, is like a tense, hypnotic journey along a mountain road as abyss after abyss opens up beside and around you. Each abyss has its horrors, and many illuminate new horrors in the previous abysses, though a couple of them seem at odds with the book's otherwise immaculate rendition of a convincing reality. Both characters and readers wind up clinging to small pleasures along the way, hoping that any reprieve is a turn for the better.
Mixed with this family drama is a half-formed political subplot. Frida's older brother, we learn, was once a member of a cadre of student radicals called the Group and killed himself in a shopping-mall suicide bombing. The Group looms large when Frida and Cal leave their forest hideaway for an egalitarian settlement called the Land, which is run by a charismatic cult leader with shady—and ultimately rather incoherent—intentions … As California concludes, the schemes come to light, and the Land's community spirit fractures. But by this point, Ms. Lepucki is just ticking off items on a dystopian fiction checklist. After the apocalypse, when survivors scavenge the midden-heap of our lost civilization and find all these post-apocalypse novels, will they marvel at our prescience or just wonder at our lack of originality?
California fails to give itself the rein to try something?—?anything?—?new with the post-apocalyptic plot line. Instead, it comes across as Lepucki’s self-indulgent contribution to the well-trodden doomsday narrative, as opposed to what would surprise and impress a reader: That is, a break from the genre’s well-worn conventions. This is mostly because, in prioritizing her politics and concept over the dynamics between Cal and Frida, Lepucki has made an easy mistake. Writers err when they forget that it’s the characters a reader cares about?—?at least more than they care about any apocalypse or smoke-and-mirrors games concerning characters’ pasts … California is just another Godzilla: flashy, entertaining, hyped, and ultimately forgettable.
Frida is in thrall to both the Land and to its people, while at first Cal skulks behind her, the recalcitrant cowboy, carefully guarding his sensual wife. He is unreasonably antagonistic toward his hosts, but we believe in his jealous love … Whereas the first half of California supplies evocative scenes and sentences, such as a haunting moment of confrontation with a starving coyote, attention to the visceral quality of life in this particular future diminishes as the book becomes concerned with ins and outs of a wider conspiracy and authorially dangled secrets. Flashes of genuine narrative tension that pull the reader forward by the shirtfront are interrupted by moments of retrospection or unhurried conversation that seem unlikely or disappointingly timed. Still, a strong whiff of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the final section lends the novel a powerful and creepy finish.
It’s a swiftly paced, nerve-racking novel, one of those books that produces simultaneous desires: You want to keep plowing through it but dread what surprises Lepucki is going to spring. And you should. By keeping the fearful scenarios firmly rooted in reality, she makes California all the more unsettling. You don’t need zombies when you can so effectively remind us how hard we lean on the social order for peace of mind … She uses this disturbing framework of a society without a safety net to examine our need for community and how we find solace in the presence of other people — even if their best interests are not ours.
Lepucki begins her story a couple of years into what Frida calls their ‘afterlife’ in the forest, on the day she tells Cal she is pregnant. This is not entirely happy news: Frida and Cal live a survivalist life, filled with fear and entirely isolated … It is not coincidental that these two recall children in a fairy tale, innocents moving ever closer to danger. But while Lepucki does lead them into her version of the witch's cottage, the true dangers they face come from within. Even before they set off, from Page 1, they're keeping secrets from each other, and their journey will multiply the secrets, making them question everything … Lepucki spins the many secrets adroitly, urging readers on with the mysteries and promise of answers.
Much of their existence in the forest, the ‘afterlife’ as Frida calls it, is colored by their yearnings for the past and the memories of their families, particularly Frida's charismatic brother, Micah. This two-placedness, the hardscrabble afterlife where a harvest of a few beets equals dinner, rubbing up against the ever-present memories of past luxuries, drives the narrative … As the dark story of the missing children is revealed, the couple begins to keep strange and unnecessary secrets from one another. The lies and omissions are a plot necessity and don't arise organically from the characters who fight and make up again and again. In fact the withholding feels childish and manipulative. Arguing and making up becomes exhausting, even in this beautifully rendered dystopian landscape … Lepucki has done a marvelous job creating and populating a near future that is, unfortunately for us, pretty easy to accept.
In her suspenseful debut, Lepucki envisions a postapocalyptic America and the people left behind. After fleeing a decaying, ransacked Los Angeles to begin anew in the wilderness, married couple Cal and Frida are faced with dwindling supplies and an uncertain future … Though real-world parallels can be drawn regarding the circumstances of the world’s decline and rebirth in the novel — ‘the Group’ is like a mash-up of the Occupy Wall Street and Weather Underground movements; the sterile wealthier ‘Communities’ clearly signify the 1%—Lepucki focuses on Cal and Frida’s evolving relationship and their divergent approaches to their predicament.