After appearing on several of the year’s “most anticipated books” lists, being thrust into the middle of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, receiving a subsequent Colbert Bump from The Colbert Report, and becoming one of the most pre-ordered books in its publisher’s history, Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, has arrived with a lot of expectations attached. Yet the tale manages to live up to the hype, for the most part.
In a bleak, but still recognizable, future where the super-rich have bought their security from complete societal breakdown by building gated Communities, Frida and Cal are a displaced Los Angeles couple who gambled the last of their gasoline to flee their ravaged city and eke out a life for themselves in the California forest. Reports of murderous pirates quell any wanderlust they might be feeling, as they make a relatively successful go of it. When the novel opens, the two have been on their own for a couple of years and married for a few years before that. Not only do they still love each other, each knows the other so well that they anticipate and take care of one another’s needs instinctually.
Then it’s revealed on the second page of the book that Frida is pregnant, and the couple’s “lovers’ idyll yet barely surviving” days are numbered. Something must change. They have been scraping by on the narrowest of margins, and if the severe weather that is already plaguing other parts of the country finds its way to their door, this family is dead—provided Frida and the child survive the pregnancy and childbirth with no medical care and very little food. After a brief conversation with a mysterious barterer they’ve grown to trust, Frida and Cal decide to leave behind all that they know and head east.
This decision (and the ensuing consequences) is where the story turns from run-of-the-mill dystopian-lit endeavor to a real observation about marriage, the corruptive nature of secrets, and the way the past can extend its long fingers into the present and future. The novel plays around with the concepts of family, obligation, responsibility, selfishness, and the cost of ideals in a way that is compelling and timeless, milking a completely devastating yet believably simple narrative out of what initially seemed like a stale, well-trod premise. Lepucki places enough breadcrumbs along the way that the truly dramatic revelations aren’t particularly surprising, but that lack of suspense doesn’t make the story any less affecting. People are just people—even after the end of the world.