by David Ebershoff
Random House (2002)
many contemporary novels read like thinly veiled autobiographies,
David Ebershoff's "Pasadena" presents a
world created from impressive amounts of historical research
and imagination. It is an old-fashioned epic that follows
three generations during a time of rapid development in
Southern California, from the turn of the century through
the end of World War II. It's twisting, heavily layered
plot skips between non sequential moments in time; in a
structure similar to "Wuthering Heights," we follow
a secondary character -- the self-made real estate developer
Andrew Jackson Blackwood -- as he considers buying one of
Pasadena's few remaining mansions, the Rancho Pasadena,
and in doing so learns the story of two people who once
lived there: Linda Stamp and a man named Bruder.
Linda and Bruder's tale begins with Dieter Stumpf, a German
immigrant who claims a piece of land on the cliffs above
the Pacific in a village called Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea,
where he farms onions. Dieter meets his wife Valencia, a
Mexican orphan, when she swims to his shore one night after
escaping a cruel employer on a ship traveling to Los Angeles.
The Stumpfs have two children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, whose
names they later change to Edmund and Linda Stamp (and there
is much Shakespearean toying with the names -- frequent
mentions of Pasadenas Linda Vista hills, and generous
usage of the word stamp).
Dieter goes to France to fight in the First World War,
and returns with Bruder, a dark, Heathcliff-like orphan
from Pasadena who comes to live and work on the farm. Bruder
and Linda are drawn to each other with a star-crossed magnetism,
and while each struggles to take control of his or her life
and of their relationship, our fatalistic narrator continually
warns us that this was never to be a tale with a happy ending.
In fact the point that we are all at fate's mercy is brought
up so often that it seems harped upon.
Linda and Bruder are not the only ones who fail to shape
their own destinies; Ebershoff's Southern California paints
an unforgiving picture of mans innate foolishness,
greed, and capability for injustice. Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea
and Pasadena are full of characters who have arrived in
the new land desperate to re-invent themselves, who seek
fortune and love but who almost always end up making wrong
turn compromises. In the case of women, against whom the
odds are truly stacked, the compromises are usually sexual,
and often non-consensual; syphilis and out-of-wedlock pregnancies
are rampant. Meanwhile blue bloods and men who have pulled
themselves up by the bootstraps grow filthy rich off of
oranges and oil and real estate, and migrants struggle just
to get by.
In many ways, California itself is the novel's main character.
We get to see what the land must have been like when it
was a wild, teeming frontier, just on its way to being transformed
by fishermen, farmers, land developers and tourists. We
watch as haze begins to fill the sky, condominiums and gas
stations are thrown up on farmland, and concrete parkways
fill arroyos. Ebershoff devotes as much attention to landscape,
seascape, season, flora and fauna as he does to the human
characters. Arroyos, foothills, cliffs, beaches, inlets
and coves are described painstakingly, while plants and
animals are listed with an encyclopedic thoroughness that
just falls short of bogging the story down. Ebershoff's
natural world is rife with both beauty and tragedy; he emphasizes
nature's cruelty as much as humankind's. Drought parched
plants, disease riddled orchards, angry tides and merciless
floods abound. There are queasy descriptions of the slaughter
of wild turkeys, pregnant sharks, and blood spraying barracudas.
In both the natural world and in human society, there is
constant struggle between progress and preservation.