Pasadenaby David Ebershoff
Random House, 485pp., $24.95
David Ebershoff's sweeping homage to his eponymic hometown, Pasadena, spans two World Wars and at least as many love triangles. Ebershoff evokes a Southern California -- before O.J., Rodney King, plastic surgery, and Ronald Reagan -- that seems as distant as ancient Babylon. Yet, as Ebershoff writes in an author's note, Pasadena "takes place in a world that once existed (or could have existed) but no longer does (or no longer could)." He paints this California in nostalgic pastels; "the hard blue sky and the Sierra Madres rising purple in autumn" appear before the tragic young figure of Linda Stamp, "greeting her with pitiless beauty."
The fictional world of Pasadena is clearly important to Ebershoff: In his two previous books, The Danish Girl and The Rose City, a modern version of the city figured prominently, while in Pasadena, the city looms large and tragic in a 19th-century, Dickens/Emily Brontë sort of way. In fact, one gets the sense that Ebershoff, the editorial director of Random House's venerable Modern Library, is as much paying tribute to his favorite authors as he is to his hometown.
This lost world concerns the rise and fall of Linda and her enigmatic lover, the spurned Bruder, who overcome their humble origins to rise to the cream of Pasadena society only to see their kingdom -- and their morals -- fall into decadence and decay. Ebershoff employs enough foreshadowing that none of this comes as a surprise. When Andrew Blackwood shows up at the beginning of the book -- also the end of Bruder's life -- with a proposal to turn Bruder's once-elegant Rancho Pasadena and its orange groves into a six-lane expressway to L.A., the wealthy real estate developer conveniently discovers a copy of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a dusty bookshelf. The ambitious Blackwood and the brooding Bruder have their differences, but they agree on one thing: California must disregard its history to achieve modernity.
"It's what the citizens want these days," Bruder says. "Modernity. Convenience. Speed. People want to live in the future, don't they?"
"The past is of little use to them," Blackwood responds.
One could argue that Ebershoff is spoiling the suspense by revealing so much so early, but there are so many twists and turns in the plot of this nearly 500-page novel that the reader is happy to have the author connect the dots. At the center of the drama is Bruder, "an unknowable man" and dead ringer for Heathcliff in Brontë's Wuthering Heights, who shows up on Linda's farm with her father, Dieter, shortly after World War I. A triangle of adolescent desire forms between Bruder, Linda, and her brother Edmund, although it's pretty chaste stuff as far as those things go. After Edmund elopes with a ne'er-do-well cabaret singer, Fraulein Carlotta, and Bruder mysteriously disappears after a flood, the action shifts to the battlefields of France, circa 1918, where Bruder makes two secret pacts with two men that will change not only his and Linda's lives, but the entire city of Pasadena as well.