As a member of the End of the World Book Club here at BookPeople, I’ve read a lot of apocalyptic fiction over the last 16 months. A lot. From atomic fallout to zombie hoards, we have covered a whole slew of catastrophes that could spell the end for mankind, yet I still find myself on the lookout for the next one to examine. When done well, the genre can offer compelling characters, the kind that remind us of friends or family or ourselves, caught up in the types of dramatic situations that mean life and death. The stakes could not be any higher than when Earth is in peril, and the results can not only entertain and excite, but also make us reflect on and question the world around us when the book is closed. And sometimes the quietest moments can ring the loudest and longest, in the ways the best novels affect us.
When I saw the description for California I felt a real sense of curiosity, since it had been a while since I had seen a new kind of apocalypse, let alone one that actually felt modern and relevant, and I wanted to see what else would appear as refreshed.
The first surprise was early on, when I began to see myself in the thoughts and concerns of Frida and Cal, the young couple at heart of the book. And not just in the way Cal is pragmatic and protective, but also in the way Frida is sensitive to the space around her, the same way having the curtains closed and the sun shut out for more than day or seeing just how dusty it is under the sofa can put me in a foul mood. Lepucki brings us up to speed bit by bit, in their recollections of meeting each other and how the world used to be. Of course, some bits hold larger implications than others, from the way Frida describes her hidden cache of objects, ranging from an abacus to a brand-new Christmas-paper-wrapped turkey baster, as “artifacts”, to Cal wondering how his parents fared in the devastating winter storms that ravaged the northern cities.
The second surprise is seeing how the world outside of my window could just as easily become the soft apocalypse that is the world in California. It doesn’t take a meteor strike or dirty bomb, just let the economic downturn slowly erode our neighborhoods, chipping away at infrastructure and family alike. Then, the privileged few, grown accustomed to their standard of living, retreat behind walls of corporate communities. The only sensible thing for everyone else to do is either survive in the bones of the great cities and try to rebuild or set out on their own in the wilds. People facing such dire circumstances will always act unpredictably, either to protect what little they have or seize what’s there for the taking, but Cal and Frida make for relatable and sensible characters to follow, even when other characters don’t behave.
The third surprise is how Lepucki manages to craft a rather low-key resolution that somehow feels more solid and pertinent than it could have in other hands. It definitely speaks to how many books I have read in the genre that build into eruptions to resolve the conflicts, featuring epic brawls or massive explosions, that I was surprised by this ending. I want to give credit to the author for resisting the temptation to wrap up everything she had built with a neat little bow or overplay the inherent drama being played out on the page by tacking on some grand finale. All the dynamic relationships between friends and families are earned by communicating, in confessions and boasts and admitting fears, so California stays true through its bittersweet ending. I was left wanting more, until I looked outside and remembered how close it comes to being so real.
Pre-order California via bookpeople.com. Copies of California will be on our shelves on July 8th, the novel’s national release date. Thank you for supporting a local, independent bookstore!