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Well I’m Not Dumb But I Can’t Understand: ‘Lola’ Confuses

"Lola, California" by Edie Meidav (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

By Eleanor T. Regan, Crimson Staff Writer

Edie Meidav’s “Lola, California” is a veritable epic of a novel, in which one word will never suffice when a paragraph can be written, and any omission is a deathly oversight. The book careens wildly between grandiosity and humbleness, and bounces constantly between cliché and emotional honesty to result in a confusing and exhausting reading experience.

The primary plotline follows the lives of Lana and Rose, two women coming of age in Berkeley, Calif. It is a tale of finding one’s identity in a chaotic world. Lana, the protagonist of the story, is the daughter of two hippie professors deeply engaged with the self-help movement. Rose is a self-searching foster child, a girl craving normalcy, something she futilely attempts to find in Lana’s life. The two girls dream up a new being, an amalgamation of both of them, a girl who embodies the best of Rose and Lana. Interpreting their lives through the lens of their favorite songs, they become a being they call “Lola,” an homage to the transvestite titular character in the Kinks’ most famous song. This being encompasses the two of them, combining the best of each girl in one identity behind which they can hide.

This idea of Lola, the togetherness upon which they can rely, is the linchpin of the book as the girls wander, at once apart and together, through their lives, always returning to each other in moments of trial. This unity persists through the novel’s vast array of dates and times and places, transcending the book’s deeply fractured plot.

Rose and Lana—together becoming Lola—are complex and deeply recognizable because they represent a fantasy of female experience: they are everything that 17-year-old girls dream of being, and everything that 35-year-old women remember themselves as. There is something deeply universal about the relationship they share with each other that manages to negate the wildly fantastic plotline. Although their stories are extravagant—incorporating nudist health spas, year-long jaunts through Europe, and a stint as high-class prostitutes while attending NYU—they are grounded because the girls experience them as normal. Instead of being tempted to disengage from the more wild elements and approach them with absurdity, Meidav contextualizes, approaching psychedelic, larger-than-life experiences in a down-to-earth, realistic prose style.

Lana’s and Rose’s experiences are universal, and they feel like women that you could know, women that you could have been. Near the beginning she describes them as “newly set loose on the world, fairly oblivious to everyone else. Masters or meteors: two girls at seventeen.” In many ways, despite the long timeline of the story, this is Meidav’s ultimate goal, to capture the experience of being a 17-year-old girl. This is where the novel is most successful. That experience, that feeling, is distilled perfectly, with just the right balance of nostalgia and blunt honesty.

Alongside Lola, Meidav also explores the story of Vic, Lana’s professor-cum-prophet of a father who is dying in jail, on death row for the murder of his wife. In many ways, he embodies the glue holding the friends together, as well as the adversity they face in a male-dominated world in which they are trying to live and thrive. Nevertheless, he often seems to get short shrift. Whether intentionally or not, his worldviews and his body of work are so ridiculous that his character ceases to be real. His motivations are never adequately explained, which makes his sections some of the most confusing of the novel, since it is impossible to grasp his character as a real person.

Although Meidav’s female characters can be truly beautiful, her entire cast of male characters often comes off as flat. They are caricatures, used to further her story about women, to validate their existence instead of to have lives and realities of their own. The book’s fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and fiancés are more or less interchangeable, and the superficiality of this aspect of the novel makes it more difficult to process the depth and realism of the female characters’ experiences. This is unfortunate because “Lola, alifornia” is so uniquely about the female experience, about attempting to exist in a world that undervalues and exploits girls, and does not take seriously the traumas that these particular characters face. The instances of sexual assault are frequent and casual, and although these events in themselves do make a point, Meidav has missed an opportunity. When the men who are abusing the women are the same depthless, bland ones who are caring for them, there can be no dimension to Meidav’s exploration of sexual assault.

There are beautiful and evocative moments in this novel. Some are even heart-wrenching but their power is diluted by Meidav’s circumlocution. “Lola, California” could easily have been half its length and still have been just as somber and beautiful. The middle drags, with several chapters at a time offering nothing more than meandering descriptions and platitudes about growing up female in America. Rose is especially shortchanged in this regard, as her plots are often secondary to Lana’s, used as nothing more than ways to further the primary story of the book. Meidav’s decision here is, once again, unfortunate, as it makes it easy to dislike a very well-written character. Meidav’s prose is incisive and insightful, especially when she describes the girls’ brief stint as prostitutes. But these flashes of insight can often feel muddled by the sheer amount of material through which they try to shine.

“Lola, California” is, in many ways, like a life. There are moments of transcendence and moments of glorious truth, but there are also long stretches of the mundane, of itchy boredom punctuated by abstract truisms. If only Meidav had leaned less heavily on cliché so that the moments of authentic life could be left to stand on their own, without being cheapened by the book’s excess baggage.

—Staff writer Eleanor T. Regan can be reached at eleanor.t.regan@college.harvard.edu.

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