As a native, I have never understood why people come to a vividly eclectic place like California just to bitch about the heat. Similarly, I have never understood why Americans, living in a richly dynamic culture of their own, harbor such a fascination for the stale conventions of a British past. But David Ebershoff, also a California native, understands these quirks well enough, apparently. Seemingly without remorse, he reduces Southern California’s tremendous wealth of history and natural resources to flat backdrop in his latest Victorian-styled novel, Pasadena.
Ebershoff’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of his novel’s setting and characters was “informed” in an unusual way: He wrote the novel in the Pasadena Public Library, using the Huntington Library’s research staff and investigating the history of San Diego’s North County in the “upstairs stacks of the Carlsbad Public Library.” The author’s academic ambitions aside, this background info comes across to the reader like a lame excuse for the coming exploitation of orange ranching, roses and contrived chronographs.
Plot overview: As World War II winds down, a newly reinvented land-speculator attempts to buy the Stumpf family farm from the mysterious Mr. Bruder. Bruder’s connection to the farms is tied to having discovered Stumpf trading in young girls during World War I—girls who maintained a “dignified beauty” and “stoic” face while being raped by Nazi soldiers. In exchange for silence, Stumpf promises to give Bruder his daughter, Linda. She is in love with her brother but marries a wealthy Pasadena orange rancher when Bruder is unjustly accused of killing her brother. But Bruder, who began life in a Pasadena orphanage, secretly owns the ranch too. Aside from cutting a deal with Stumpf, he had saved the cowardly rancher’s life and promised not to tell in exchange for the title to the family ranch. In the end, most of the women, who secretly enjoyed being forced into sexual intercourse with men of superior socioeconomic standing, have abortions or die horrible syphilitic deaths. Only Bruder and a gossip-columnist-turned-respectable-married-journalist remain to unveil the melodramatic past.
Undeniably stunning description and precision detail—portrayals of a coastal storm in which “the ocean chewed the beach, foam spraying the steps, bull kelp spit from the mouth of the waves, and hermit crabs skittering like crumbs across a table of sand”—lend authenticity to the novel’s sense of place. However, in spite of diligent research, Ebershoff’s historical details are much less effective. Cardboard cutouts of an abandoned silkworm farm with glass walls and pesticide sprayers with “brass pumps burning in the sun” hang flat against the unnaturally imposed plot structure.
Even worse, relentless references to sun and heat, accompanied by a naive introduction of a “motor parkway connecting Los Angeles to Pasadena” and “something called ‘smog,’ ” are way too reminiscent of out-of-state visitors who incessantly fan themselves and talk about escaping snow.
Instead of exploring California’s diverse history, Ebershoff distorts timeworn themes of reinvention and socio-environmental rape into a moral fable. A Cliffs Notes adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Pasadena pays undue homage to the Gothic novel as the British root of American literature.
That’s Gothic as in desolate landscapes, improbable coincidence, arcane orphans, star-crossed lovers and an endless stream of defiled virgins.
For a real sense of Victorian prose, check out Emily Bronte. To understand California, go outside and breathe what’s left of the arroyo scent floating on a late-afternoon breeze, listen to a coyote bay at sundown and feel the hum of invention all around you. You won’t find the essence of California’s past, present or future in a library or David Ebershoff’s Pasadena.