By Madison Vain
Updated August 01, 2014 at 07:01 PM EDT
California By Edan Lepucki

You know how when you’re watching a horror movie and you want to cover your eyes, there’s always someone who yells, “Don’t cover your eyes! Your imagination is scarier than the film,” and you find yourself peeking through tense fingers?

California, by Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, relies on similar logic.

Set in post-apocalyptic America—an indeterminate time after society has collapsed—we meet Cal and Frida in the wilderness of California. Vague references are made to the crises (earthquakes, killer storms, profound economic disparity, empowered terrorist cells, rampant crime) that drove them here—but that’s the only detail that’s offered for many, many pages. The end of the world is as much our own construction as Lepucki’s. Do we know why the government gave up? Nope. Do we know when it gave up? Not really. Was there a usurper? Doesn’t seem like it, but it’s possible.

Cal and Frida and their journey from solitude towards community is an interesting exploration of complex ideas: What does humanity look like outside the constructs of society? What are the rules of relationships when, as far as you can tell, there’s no one left but your partner?

I wish the book worked through these questions further. There’s a looseness to the world Lepucki builds that’s upsetting at times; the characters and circumstances don’t all add up. It feels like Lepucki couldn’t decide what would be the most haunting part of the fallen world—solitude, ungoverned humanity, self-governed humanity, living at the mercy of nature (wolves make a brief appearance, and remember those storms we talked about…). So she gives us all those things, but none of them are fully formed.

For instance: Why, after years of living in the woods, does it feel like Frida is still doe-eyed, unhardened by tough circumstances? Her naïveté is grating. What happened to those earthquakes and storms? They wiped out everything and then…stopped? Frida eventually finds her family in the forest, but why didn’t they coordinate their respective ways out of Los Angeles years ago? Given that Frida and Cal, who are pregnant, find a community that doesn’t allow children, why do they want to stay? They were doing all right out there.

Lepucki is a good storyteller. The cadence and pacing of her words and plot is entertaining and easy to fall into. She is also, perhaps, not a great architect. Dystopian literature is well-traveled territory at this point, and hers could have been better fleshed out.