California by Edan Lepucki

Title: California
Author: Edan Lepucki
Genre: Fiction / dystopia

Rating: 5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

This was one of the last books I read in 2015, and it helped me end my year on a high note. The book surprised me by being as good as it was; I guess with the 3.22 rating on Goodreads I was prepared for the worst. And yet this book ended up earning my highest rating—and only about a tenth of books I read do. Usually I think the Goodreads rating is far too high, and my ratings are almost always lower than the “average” rating, but this time it was a lot higher.

A lot of the low reviews, especially on Amazon, reference Stephen Colbert (apparently he recommended this book to his viewers, and apparently this is not the kind of book the typical Colbert fan enjoys). Other low ratings had a common thread running through them, that the story was not “believable” or that it was “tedious.” The latter is a personal call (I personally did not find it tedious at all), and the former was something that doesn’t really concern me. If it does concern you…I mean, is any post-apocalyptic story “believable”? I don’t think any of us can say with certainty how it would roll out or what it would look like, especially with all the possible permutations or variations such a decline/destruction of civilization might take. For what it’s worth, I feel like its version of the “decline” was more “believable” than Station Eleven’s or Oryx and Crake’s (both of which I enjoyed) and maybe not as “believable” as Parable of the Sower’s. The scenario presented in the book seemed internally consistent to me, and nothing about it was distracting to me.

But like I said, whether or not a certain post-apocalyptic scenario is plausible is not what sells me on its story; what does that is its…well…story. And in my opinion this book had a good one. There’s not so much action that it’s totally plot-driven, which is a bonus for me and I’m sure a drawback for many others. The characters are realistic. Are they frustrating? Certainly, like many people in real life. Are they compelling? I thought so. I don’t think this book quite qualifies as a character study, but if the main characters get on your nerves in the beginning, and that’s a dealbreaker for you, yeah, you might not like this book at all. We spend a lot of time with them in their lives on their (mostly stupid) terms. But I don’t need likable characters so we were cool.

What I really liked about this book was how it looks at the relationships people have, and the strain that various things put on them. It’s about priorities and adaptations, trust, uncertainties, denial, personalities and how they are complementary or crazy-making or something in between. It’s not groundbreaking or anything, but I thought it was well done. Perhaps one of the reasons this has such a low average rating was that it didn’t have enough to action to satisfy the thrillseekers, but also didn’t have enough depth in exploring the human condition of its characters to satisfy the literary/intellectual crowd. I thought it was just about right, though.

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