Ebershoff's 'Pasadena': The genuine article

July 21, 2002|By Adam Kirsch | By Adam Kirsch,Special to the Sun

Pasadena, by David Ebershoff. Random House, 485 pages. $24.95.

In the days before the fiction best-seller lists were taken over by consumerist fantasy and doomsday thrillers, there was a more attractive and substantial kind of popular novel: the historical melodrama. The success of books like Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber was owed to their combination of passionate plots with rich evocations of lost worlds: the Old South, or the court of Charles II.

Pasadena, the entertainingly tempestuous new novel by David Ebershoff, resurrects the form with total conviction. (It is Ebershoff's third book, following the well-received The Danish Girl and The Rose City). Set mostly in Southern California in the years before the Depression, it is both a triumph of historical re-creation and a full-bodied romance, complete with a poor but beautiful heroine and handsome stranger with a secret.

The city of Pasadena still exists, of course, tucked into the hills northeast of Los Angeles. But in the period of Ebershoff's novel, it was more than a suburb: It was the wealthy, exclusive enclave where culture first took root in Southern California, at places like Cal Tech and the Huntington Library. The allure of Pasadena in the 1920s -- and especially of the Rancho Pasadena, an enormous orange plantation owned by the Poore family -- is what dooms Linda Stamp, the heroine whose story Ebershoff unfolds through reminiscence and flashback.

Linda -- born Sieglinde Stumpf, the daughter of a German immigrant peddler and a runaway prostitute from Mexico -- instinctively knows that her fate will carry her away from the coastal farm of Condor's Nest, where she grows into a beauty. And when her father comes back from World War I with the mysterious Bruder in tow, he becomes the image of her longing.

An orphan whose rough exterior conceals a sensitive heart, Bruder calls forth Linda's passion, and Ebershoff's: "The breeze down an orange alley tugged at his shirt and popped a button and exposed the flank of his chest," and so forth. But a series of disasters -- everything from flash floods to syphilis -- keeps apart the lovers we know belong together, and the debauched Capt. Willis Poore moves in to claim what is rightfully Bruder's.

On the way to answering the novel's central question -- will true love triumph? -- Ebershoff seeds his novel with mysteries. Long-lost parents, secret deals cut in wartime, changes of name and station, elopements and adoptions: The whole melodramatic panoply is used to keep the story moving swiftly and suspensefully.

Ebershoff's style is as ripe as the oranges on the rancho, at times more so, but he excels at creating a thickly textured world for his heroine to inhabit. Everything from the lobster pots she builds at Condor's Nest to the antifreeze "smudgers" used to protect the orange grove in winter seems authentic and accurate.

You feel that, if you were transported back to Pasadena in 1925, Ebershoff's book would enable you to find your way around perfectly, from the dress shops of Colorado Avenue to the Suicide Bridge over the Arroyo Seco. Today, the area has been redeveloped as a sort of outdoor mall, rather along the lines of Baltimore's Inner Harbor or the new Times Square. David Ebershoff takes us back to the days when Pasedena was a genuine article -- and the best-seller was, too.

Adam Kirsch is an editor for the Penguin Lives biography series and formerly was assistant library editor of The New Republic. His first book of poems, The Thousand Wells, will be published this fall by Ivan R Dee. He is working on a book on postwar American poetry.

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