Lepucki's Middling Debut Far Over-Hyped (CALIFORNIA)

When prime time talk show host Stephen Colbert recently decided to join the on-going (good grief this needs to end) war between Amazon and Hachette Publishing, he did so by challenging his viewers to make one of Hachette's new titles, Edan Lepucki's debut novel CALIFORNIA, a New York Times bestseller by purchasing the book via Powell's Books online. As a loyal fan of Powell's, I certainly applaud his enthusiasm. However, if California is the best Hachette title Colbert can produce to fight his battle with Amazon, he might not have picked the best hill to die on.

Lepucki's dystopian debut is set in the not-too-distant future in the wake of an apocalyptic event. Los Angeles has been reduced to a crime-filled wasteland and conditions are worsening every day. Only the wealthiest, most elite citizens can afford luxuries such as electricity, internet access, and food items once taken for granted. As crime increases, the wealthy retreat behind reclusive and guarded communities, escalating crime as terrorist bands rise in response to the privilege of elitism. Cataclysmic weather events have destroyed other parts of the country, geographically isolating what were once unified states.

Frida and Cal are not members of that small elite percentage living in Los Angeles. Their daily struggle to survive in the crumbling remains of the city lead them to strike out on their own in the wilderness outside the city. Alone and testing their pioneer survival skills, Frida and Cal find a delicate balance that is disrupted when Frida becomes pregnant and is determined to join a nearby mysterious settlement of survivors.

While Lepucki is to be commended for her world-building in California, her plotting was meandering at best. The first half of novel is devoted to an examination of the dynamics of Frida and Cal's solitary marriage as they scratch out a survival existence in the wilderness. This would make an admirable McCarthy-esque novel reminiscent of The Road if Frida or Cal had any redemptive qualities. Unfortunately we are given a hundred pages alternatively filled with fabulous world-building and a whiny Frida and a brooding, unlikable Cal.

One is nearly thankful when Lepucki abruptly switches gears and decides to take our borderline-obnoxious couple on a quest to the mysterious nearby settlement. This gives the author an opportunity to continue with her world-building (this is good) and add some more characters to offset Frida and Cal (this is even better). The mystery within the settlement takes up nearly the rest of the novel and by all appearances is set to provide the crescendo and resolution in the story. Until it doesn't. For reasons only known to the author, she removes Frida from the settlement in the last fifty pages or so and places her in yet another, even more mysterious and dangerous settlement ---- and then the story abruptly ends. With no resolution. There are three possible reasons for this:

1. The author plans a sequel novel.

2. The author intended this to be a no-resolution ending in an artsy kind of way.

3. The author made it to page 350 and suddenly realized she only had 50 pages left to squeeze in this last little bit she wanted to write.

I'm inclined, in this particular case, to go with #3 only because the first two options are usually made clear in a well-written novel. It was not at all clear in California.

Ultimately, Lepucki's debut was an excellent example of admirable world-building populated with mediocre characters plodding along in a meandering plot. Top it all off with a rushed ending leading to no resolution and you have a middling debut novel from an author who deserves watching as her work improves in future novels. But certainly not worthy of Colbert's current call to action, making me wonder whether he actually read the book.


Title: California
Author: Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette)
Date: July 8, 2014
Pages: 400
Source: Review copy courtesy of publisher


  1. Welp! You think they could have found a stronger book, as you said. It doesn't sound at all like something I want to read.

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