‘Lola, California’ By Edie Meidav. 448 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.
Edie Meidav's Lola, California is titled after the name two girls, Lana and Rose, give themselves. They stole their name from the identity-bending hit by The Kinks (Lana is Lola One, Rose Lola Two). The Lolas shared a thick, impenetrable friendship, and Meidav captures exactly the sweetness of girlhood co-dependency (think Heavenly Creatures, but healthier).
This gorgeous, audacious novel goes far beyond a story of two girls, though. Lana and Rose grew up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s, and the book is as much about that town and the millennial Northern California zeitgeist as any character. Meidav is harrowingly precise in her descriptions of the place, where the eucalyptus “smelled like both cat pee and colonialism” and the men “focused on outwitting actuarial odds by their faithfulness to California protocols: ease, cheekbones, the low glycemic index of their diet, fire trail hikes, cardiovascular gestures, wealth, Tuscan vegetables, phytonutrients, heart-benefiting, and cancer-fighting volunteerism, the kind who into their fifties remain manboys, pursuing life-risking activities without ever wiping off that constant smile. If misfortune happens to such men, a hemorrhaging bank account or loss of an actual limb, such men call it process or a learning experience, ready to die before admitting failure, failure bad as a hairweave, a condition practically requiring surrender of the state’s driving license.”
Yes, that sentence is long. Meidav’s prose is writerly: exact yet maximalist, prodigiously lyrical. Together with the novel’s jump-cut structure and length, Meidav asks her readers to slow down. The opposite of a page turner in the best way, the novel prompts us to linger, re-read, flip back, and figure the damned thing out.
But don’t worry: Lola, California is no modernist convolution. Meidav offers more than pretty sentences. This book has plot in spades.
Lana’s father is Victor Mahler, a charismatic Berkeley professor who is so influential he has a gaggle of followers, called “shaggies” within the Mahler family. Mahler’s work is a fuzzy sort of neuro-psychology that hippie types dig, and read on life-changing solo treks into the wilderness. Mahler commits a horrible crime (the details are doled out slowly, so I’ll let you find out for yourself). When the novel opens, he is on death row with ten days to go.
The Lolas, bonded in girlhood, split up when they go to in college. After a breakdown and then her father’s crime, Lana changes her name to Wagner (get it?) and creates serial new lives for herself as she drifts up and down California. Rose, the more sensible one, an orphan who grew up idolizing the Mahlers—particularly the enchanting Vic—spends most of her adulthood trying to find Lana and writing letters to Vic in jail.
During Mahler’s last days, Rose is 40, a lawyer, single and hoping for a child. Lana is the mother of twin boys, her ex a suicide and her new partner, Dirk, is a second-rank Mahler guru type who has a gig dispensing wisdom at Hope Springs, a clothing-optional, vegan, communal retreat near where Mahler is incarcerated. There, Lana and Rose meet for the first time in decades.
Throughout the 20 years the novel covers, Meidav asks of her characters: What good is choice? It makes everyone free and it makes them sick. There are too many options out there, too many ways to rationalize one’s actions, and none better at doing just that, for others and himself, than the self-made prophet, Vic Mahler. Dirk thinks about “the riddle of identity as the millennium approached: to each individual an orthodox routine as predictable as it was self-invented. You could job your parcourse or sleep in an SRO, but everyone hungered for a buffet of choice, namely the Emersonian invention of a religion that made sense of the individual, as Mahler had said.”
What bruised the characters? Mahler, the European from unknown Liechtenstein who made himself over in America, Rose, the orphan and Lana’s mother, the child of a Native American and Japanese who was raised by relatives, all lack family bonds. They suffer from the burdensome freedom of self-invention, as sweet for Lana when it is a Lola bubble as it is bitter, later, when she illegally annexes another identity.
At the days tick down towards Mahler’s execution, Vic terminally ill, and everyone faces more choice: stay or go? Their decisions do not wrap up this beautiful novel neatly, and several strands get lost in the thicket of Meidav’s ambition. Small matter. Lola, California is a startling novel, as prodigiously smart as it is technically proficient. Her characters may be narcissistic zeligs, but Meidav is an American original.
THE DAILY BEAST
—Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic's Guide To Writers' Houses
Causes Edie Meidav Supports
Heifer International, Kiva, 826 Valencia