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Going Coastal

Southern California has long been a proving ground for every new twist in the American experiment, which makes it an ideal setting for David Ebershoff's ambitious family saga.

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Discovering California's past is always a bit like finding a silent-film star living in semi-squalor next to a Santa Monica mini-mall. First you think, How surprising to find her here. Then you think, Well, where else would she be? Movies like Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? have explored this notion of Californian living obsolescence, but it's not specific to the film industry. Nowhere was the pace of twentieth-century change swifter than it was in Southern California. There are people alive now who remember the dusty, hardscrabble place of chaparral and arroyo it used to be, but in other ways, the historical distance seems unbridgeable.

Linda Stamp, the heroine of David Ebershoff's new novel, Pasadena, was born in 1903, which would make her 99 today. But Pasadena is in many ways a nineteenth-century novel (self-consciously, too: Each chapter begins with a quotation from Emily Brontë), a big, passionate, engrossing story about people whose way of life we can no longer quite comprehend.

Ebershoff has re-created a menagerie of species to walk through this Jurassic landscape. There's the gnomelike immigrant tinsmith Dieter Stumpf; his children, Sieglinde and Siegmund, the near-incestuous prince and princess of Stumpf's farm on the Pacific, called Condor's Nest; the highly intelligent, coldly heartless real-estate developer Blackwood; Captain Willis Poore, the timid, wispily handsome orange baron, proprietor of Rancho Pasadena; and taciturn Bruder, an archetypal American -- intelligent, ethical, lucky beyond measure -- who's the book's thwarted hero. They're historical specimens, but Ebershoff gives them life and more -- they flash and glow with a mythic sheen, ready for their close-ups.

The core of Ebershoff's story is the doomed romance between Bruder and Sieglinde. Dieter encounters Bruder during World War I and brings him to live at his onion farm on the coast. When Bruder arrives, Sieglinde Stumpf, later Americanized to Linda Stamp, is a wild creature, an ocean girl, scrambling down the bluff to swim with sharks and seals, reveling in her natural power. In the Brontë-Austen tradition, Bruder loves her for her intelligence and energy as well as her dark beauty. They're soul mates, created for each other -- and Ebershoff tortures them by putting them in proximity, getting them all in a lather, then painfully prying them apart. Time after time, they mortgage their future for some worldly purpose, and lose, then begin again.

Pasadena is obsessed with fate -- itself a historical relic -- and with what one has to sell, whether ranch, or body, or soul, to survive in a changing world. There's a sense of relentlessness, cruel gears grinding into place. Everyone's concealing some time-bomb secret bargain or flaw, and Ebershoff detonates them with Hollywood-style regularity.

In a Sensurround pursuit of vivid image and strong sensation, Ebershoff leaves no stone unturned, no stain unseen, no smell unsniffed. The book's perspective flashes in and out from the sweep of history to drops of sweat, inducing occasional vertigo. He also charts the phenomenal diversity of early-twentieth-century American capitalism, when a thousand colorful hucksters bloomed, before the giant, dull, well-organized ones came along and wiped them out. And he shows us the rise of the coming world of empty comfort: the onslaught of all those prim hedonists in their tennis skirts, driving the new freeways. One night, his heroine, by now an orange baron's wife, rides by a store where "footlights shone on a display of its endless electrical wares: Telechron clocks, plug-in waffle irons, coffee urns, casserole dishes, hot plates, Hoover uprights, lamps with skin shades, painted with scenes of hummingbirds, massaging pads, torchères and silver milk warmers. The store was so modern and brightly lit that it, and all of California Street, felt to Linda like another world."

Linda and Bruder, though, aren't built for comfort, even if Linda aspires to it. And finally, the book collapses into one transaction -- fittingly, a real-estate transaction.

The orange baron liked to call Linda "my girl of the Wild West." " 'I pulled her off the frontier,' he would proclaim, shuddering at the thought of what California had once been and comforting himself by . . . what it was on its way to becoming."

It's not a subtle thought. But what happened in Southern California was not a subtle thing.

Pasadena
By David Ebershoff.
Random House; 485 pages; $24.95.


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