From The Daily:
The premise of “Lola, California,” Edie Meidav’s third novel, is simple: A man, Vic Mahler, has killed his wife. He is sentenced to death for his crime and languishes in Alcatraz, waiting for his estranged daughter, Lana, to pay him a visit, and maybe even forgive him. Meidav teases out this bare-bones plot into a dense, expertly organized tale with some enlightening things to say about friendship, love and parenthood in post-’60s America.
The how and why of the murder in question are answered gradually, peppered throughout a meandering history of the Mahler family and of the people who orbit, transfixed, around it. Set in California beginning in the 1970s and ending in 2008, the story examines how Vic, a popular professor and leading liberal thinker in 1970s Berkeley, became a person who murdered his wife. Betraying his only child, Lana, with his crime, Vic somehow remains in the good graces of his daughter’s childhood best friend, Rose, who devotes some of her spare time to helping Vic obtain a stay of execution. But to get anywhere in the process, Rose needs Lana’s help. The friends have spent the two decades since their adolescence moving fitfully in and out of each other’s lives. Lana, skeptical, proud and defensive, is a stubborn aide, and understandably so: Her mother is dead. Will Rose get Lana to cooperate in time? It doesn’t really matter; the novel’s journey is more important than its destination, though Meidav does dangle a carrot by edging slowly, sometimes in hourly increments, up to the execution date.
What Meidav seems to be most interested in is creating a full picture, Henry James-style, of this family, and of Rose, who for all intents and purposes is part of the family (adopted by a single mother as a young girl, she treats Vic sort of like a father). Each character dissects a chapter or two of the family’s history, and they devote even more time to analyzing each other. This in-the-round presentation does not make for very light reading, partly because Vic is a zany, charismatic neurobiologist-turned-philosopher so beloved that his followers take to camping out on his front lawn. To varying degrees, his wife, Mary, Lana and Rose are followers, too, and even from behind prison walls, Vic wields his influence over Lana and Rose. His esoteric hippie-attracting ideas (“Endless hope remains for those of us who believe they have been locked into some dusty Freudian legerdemain,” he pronounces during one of his talks) are troubling, since, one skeptic reminds him, he is also a “tenure-track bourgeois professor” at Berkeley who owns a “vintage Porsche” and an “ivy-covered North Berkeley house.” More troubling for Lana, Vic sees his daughter as a kind of impressionable disciple, and both Vic and her mother treat her more as philosophical food for thought than as their child. At an end-of-semester party, for instance, Vic breaks down parenthood for a student: “The kid becomes your libido, yes. Something messy on the boulevards of life. Then you do what you can to contain the libido. Your swipes and smiles act as a tissue over the libido.” Lana is standing right there listening, but Vic just nods at her “politely as if she were a stranger, which she has become.” In other words, the Mahlers are not exactly model parents, and they are not all that fond of each other, either.
As that passage illustrates, the mood of the novel is dour. There is little in the way of humor or frivolity that is not framed as wistful retrospection. Indeed, anything that may be construed as fun, like teenage Lana and Rose singing Cuban songs topless while drinking their way through Vic’s wine collection, is shrouded in regret and sometimes worse. In the above case, Vic returns home from work early to catch Lana and Rose, chests barely covered by Mardi Gras beads, in the act. But instead of scurrying away in fatherly embarrassment or admonishing them for their underage drinking, Vic says how nice the light is, grabs his camera, and starts taking pictures of them. Creepy, or par for the course in free-thinking Berkeley? Either way, if we hadn’t been suspicious of Vic a hundred pages earlier, we certainly are now.
Such events pull us further into the story, since through all the nostalgia and philosophizing of now-adult Rose and Lana, we’re still looking to unravel the “how” of Mary’s murder, and it turns out that the Mahlers have several other secrets to tell us. Without revealing too much: Infidelity, mental illness, rape, abduction and suicide all come into play, and Meidav’s positioning of each of these events is no small feat. Her greatest gift in this novel is the element of surprise, which is a common trait among the best thriller writers but is more difficult to hatch in an artful social novel. Meidav creates a beautiful and true picture of female friendship, but as if that were not enough, she also keeps us guessing about who her characters really are, and how much weight their evaluations of each other actually hold.
Meidav has no interest in being a simple or straightforward writer, and it may take readers several chapters to get comfortable with her style. She is prone to complex metaphorical descriptions, especially when trying to build a picture of Rose and Lana’s relationship. At one point, Rose sneaks into a hotel room of Lana’s because she “needed to alphabetize some inner turbulence.” Elsewhere, Lana ruminates on nudity thusly: “people’s faces work to hold up new veils by the minute: the all-time favorite is dignity, as is the visage of sex-transcending enlightenment, a new kind of spiritual chastity armature.” Of course, we could blame Vic for all this verbosity, and the ideas trapped inside it are mostly good ones; they just take a longer pause to appreciate. Like any language, Meidav’s must be learned, but doing so is well worth the initial struggle.