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California couple heads for the woods in post-apocalyptic tale of survival

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California will surely appear soon on a bestseller list near you, but not for the reason you might expect.

Late-night television host Stephen Colbert recently urged audiences to pre-order the novel -- the debut effort by Edan Lepucki -- as part of an ongoing dispute between bookseller Amazon and Hachette, which publishes the book (and Colbert's own book) in the United States.

The book leapt to the top of several independent bookstore bestseller lists, leading Colbert to set a new, higher goal for his audience: get California on the New York Times bestseller list. Doing so, Colbert suggests, will "really show Amazon" that readers reject its stance on pricing.

Colbert commands an audience a million strong and is likely to have a substantive effect on the success of the book, landing it in the hands of thousands of readers who might not have otherwise heard of it.

If Colbert fans love deliberately paced, character-driven dystopian fiction, they won't be disappointed.

California is set in the near future -- around the 2050s -- and the world as we know it is over. No single cataclysmic event is responsible for the world's end; no zombies, war or disaster are in the rear-view mirror. Instead, Lepucki makes oblique references to a believable series of earthquakes, storms, oil shortages, politics and greed that lead to a slow slide into society's decay.

In some post-apocalyptic fiction the end of modern civilization serves as a great equalizer, forcing rich and poor onto the same survivalist plane. But in California's deterioration, those who can afford it move to exclusive communities provided with the amenities and conveniences of the former world -- gated suburbs taken to the extreme in a way that is depressingly realistic.

Young couple Cal and Frida aren't part of the one per cent, so a swanky suburb is beyond their means. Instead they have abandoned their home in Los Angeles, settled in an unpopulated wilderness and are trying to start over in the new world, learning how to survive by hunting and foraging.

In Cal and Frida, Lepucki has drawn complicated, genuine people in an authentic marriage. They share a deep passion and concern for one another -- but also the annoyances and bickering of living alone together, "like they were on an eternal camping trip."

A loving pair with only each other for company -- no television, Internet or other amusements -- has frank consequences: "They made love all the time. Sometimes their lust was unquenchable, and sometimes they were just bored. Sex was the only fun, the only way to waste time."

All that dilatory diversion leads to pregnancy, transforming how they feel about themselves, each other and their living situation. They decide they must make a change and set out to find other settlers. Their search ends in an explosive revelation, again turning the couple's world on its head.

The theme of secrecy recurs throughout the book; both Cal and Frida hide things, convincing themselves it's for the good of the other: "She had to keep it hidden. It belonged only to her, and the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself." The secrecy -- and its mirror, paranoia -- play key roles in the book; everyone seems to be withholding something, working cross-purposes, and no one knows who they can trust.

As the book's pace picks up in the third act, secrets fall apart and Frida must wrestle with the question of family -- specifically what makes a family: blood, familiarity, security, comfort, proximity, or that most ephemeral: love.

At its heart, California probes the difference between surviving and living. What makes life worthwhile? And what is worth giving up in exchange?


Wendy Sawatzky is associate editor, digital news for and commander-in-chief at

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 8:05 AM CDT: Formatting.

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