On the southern California coast, between San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey, lies the village of Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea. At the turn of the century, before developers arrived with their condominiums and superhighways, it was barely a place at all. As described in David Ebershoff’s new novel, Pasadena, Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea was “a handful of acre farms and fishing shacks—‘blackies,’ they were called—and a straight strip of gray-sand beach.” Pasadena is the story of Linda Stamp, whose father, a German onion farmer named Dieter Stamp, struggles in this wild and unpromising place to gain a foothold in the new world. But it is the willful and independent Linda who ascends (via the unlikeliest of pathways) to the coveted world of American wealth and privilege.
Pasadena is not simply a tale of immigrant-makes-good, however; as Ebershoff follows the life of a young woman determined not to make the same mistakes her mother made, he chronicles the evolution of a world. Linda’s transformation from dirt-poor farm- and fisher-girl to society wife parallels the transformation of California itself, from wilderness to farmer’s paradise to developer’s dream. For both, the change brings good and ill, growth and decay. Ebershoff follows this dual unfolding through a series of narrative sleights of hand, so that Linda’s story becomes a retrospective passed from one narrator to another, a strategy that is sometimes intriguing, sometimes irritating, but always unexpected.
One of the most striking aspects of this novel is that it begins with the end: seemingly the end of the world. “The dam broke and Linda looked up and saw the bluff collapse, a waterfall of mud.” With her mother and a young farmhand named Bruder, Linda stands in the rain on the bluffs above the sea. All three are swept away in a deluge of mud. Although Linda and Bruder survive, her mother doesn’t, leaving Linda to take on the labors that broke her mother’s heart.
But just as Linda, and we, are plummeting into this new reality, Ebershoff yanks us out of the mud and into the future. Suddenly it is 1944, and Andrew Jackson Blackwood, a young developer, is cruising along the coast, looking for cheap land to convert into housing for soldiers returning from World War II. In particular, Blackwood is interested in the Rancho Pasadena, an abandoned beaux-arts mansion and orange grove that belong to Bruder—the same Bruder who just survived a landslide. The real estate agent handling the property is Cherry Nay, a childhood friend of Linda Stamp.
Thus the unlikely Blackwood becomes the conduit for Linda’s story as he picks up on tantalizing pieces of the past: why is her name on a grave at the Rancho Pasadena? What is her connection with the willowy young girl Sieglinde, who now lives with Bruder at Condor’s Nest, the old Stamp onion farm? Bit by bit, Blackwood assembles the story through his conversations with Cherry Nay and others, learning about Linda’s ill-fated romance with the mysterious Bruder and her tragic marriage to the wealthy, handsome, and cowardly Willis Poore, owner of the Rancho Pasadena.
Like most family sagas, Pasadena bristles with a rich, if sometimes confusing, array of relationships and interrelationships. Its plotting is complex, and if this book has a flaw, it is that the story-within-a-story narrative structure allows the author to construct and conceal some shaky plot twists. Post hoc explanations for unlikely events sometimes tax credulity. Nonetheless, Pasadena is an engrossing read, a novel that explores both the complexities of human love and the ugly underside of the American Dream.
Lori Baker is a BAM contributing editor.