Man, I so, so, so wanted to like this book. I mean, c'mon--Sherman Alexie, who rocks, touted it on The Colbert Report! Sherman Alexie! Stephen Colbert! That's a whole lot of wonderful in one short video segment!
Alas. By the time I got to the end--because I had to see how it ended--I wondered: what first-time authors were passed over for the spotlight? What a shame to think about it.
The premise is intriguing. The apocalpse has come, but it's not a large-scale, instant cataclysm, like a nuclear war. It's more of a slow disintegration of society and nature, with communities falling apart and anarchy reigning. To escape an increasingly frightening Los Angeles, married couple Frida and Cal (nicknamed California--d'oh) head out to the wilds to try and survive. And they do, in slovenly fashion, living on beets (yuck) and sprouts. But when Frida finds herself pregnant, they decide to go out into the world and see if there is any kind of sort-of-stable society they can belong to, to be safer. They find one, but it's a community that has its own issues and secrets, and safety may not be assured.
Sounds good, right? If only it had lived up to its premise. A huge chunk of the book takes place in backstory, to the point where I wondered if the author had ever considered changing her narrative structure. I don't mind a little backstory when necessary, but I'm going to guess that at least 40% of this book is told that way--if the reader needs all that backstory, maybe the author should have begun the book with that, and then moved into the present. It's irritating to constantly be dropped into a character's reverie about the past and how it led to this.
Which leads to a second problem. I won't give spoilers, but there's at least one horrific scene that's told by someone remembering it, years later. So the reader gets it second-hand, long after the fact. How much more terrifying it would have been to be told in as it happened, first-hand.
The story is told third person, with chapters alternating between Frida's and Cal's points of view. If they were more interesting people, this would have worked. But they don't seem terribly realistic, and worse, they're awfully whiny and bratty.
And there are weird little plot holes. If they've barely been surviving on beets and sprouts, how was Frida nourished enough to become pregnant at all? Seems odd.
Some of the plot feels more than just a little derivative, especially of things like Lost, The Walking Dead, and even The Stepford Wives. If you like any of those shows--and I do--you're better off staying with them. Even Lost, with all its plot problems, was more intriguing than this.
Finally, there's often much wailing and moaning about writers with MFAs writing in a "workshop" style, which no one seems able to define. But California gave me some prime examples. There are phrases that are beautifully written, but out of place--apparently no one gave the author the "kill your darlings" speech--or similes that are interesting, but unclear. Here's one: "The damage of those fights trailed them like a pack of hungry dogs." At first glance, it's great, but then I start thinking about hungry dogs and all the different ways they might behave, and now I'm not sure what it means.
Oh--and there's a posthumous novel by Jonathan Franzen. Yeah.
So, as much as I wanted to like this, I just couldn't. I'm sad for myself as a reader, and I'm sad for the other first-time novelists who didn't get this chance to shine.