David Ebershoff is the editor of a division of Random House called The Modern Library, but he left his heart in the old library. Asked by an Australian interviewer to name his "favorite books of all time," he swoons through a list of 19th-century novels, starting with Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure."
That won't surprise anyone who reads his latest work, a luxurious tragedy called "Pasadena" that could sit comfortably alongside Hardy's brooding classic. Everything in this novel weeps with regret for the loss of love and land and potential, but especially for the passing of a grand literary style. It's slow and gorgeous, full of romance and disaster, swelling with the kind of heavy symbolism that went out with scarlet A's and white whales.
What's most brilliant about "Pasadena," though, is the way the story comes to us. Its parts accumulate from shards of gossip polished into legend.
Andrew Jackson Blackwood knows that when the soldiers come back from Europe and the Pacific, they'll need houses, lots of them, and he's going to supply them. He's already made a fortune buying distressed properties during the Depression, but when he spots a rare track of empty farmland in Pasadena, he sees the potential to construct an entire neighborhood from scratch.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the owner, he's contacted by Cherry Nay, a slick real estate agent, who wants to make sure he hears and understands the dark history of this land. And so, over the course of several weeks, Blackwood is spellbound by the remarkable tragedy of a young woman who rose beyond her dreams but failed to catch the simple happiness she craved.
Linda Stamp was 16 when her father returned to their onion farm along the southern coast of California at the end of World War I. The family had heard nothing of his time in the service, nor of Bruder, the quiet soldier he brings home. (Think "Brude the Obscure.")
Linda meets him after staring down a shark and running out of the ocean naked carrying lobsters. So begins a smoldering romance that eventually burns both these lovers to ash.
Bruder is a sullen, intellectual man of frightening strength and patience. Though he's "won" Linda in a ghastly wartime bargain with her father, he never reveals that promise, choosing instead to earn her love through the power of his devotion. It's a peculiar courtship: He almost drowns on one date. Another involves tearing apart a dead horse. They trade bags of rattlesnake tails. He's thrilled when she snags his cheek with a fish hook.
Everything on this sweltering farm is charged with erotic electricity, the voltage rising as Linda and Bruder resist the attraction that's consuming them both. Indeed, their discipline is outdone only by the author's. Ebershoff never violates the standards of 19th-century tastes, but ironically his restraint generates more heat than all the sexual mechanics of his contemporaries.
The story takes a dark turn when Bruder moves to the Pasadena Ranch to oversee the splendid orange groves of Willis Poore, a man he served with in Germany. Linda can't understand his sudden departure, but, as always, the two of them seem incapable of talking to one another a failing that leads to grave tragedies later on.
Eventually, after four years of silence, Bruder offers Linda a job as a cook at the orchard, and she enters a climate where passive aggression grows as bountifully as oranges.
Willis Poore and his anorexic sister preside over the Pasadena Ranch like husband and wife, with all the creepy suggestions that implies. They move through a wonderfully described upper-class society, attending hobo costume parties and fretting over ribald allusions to their peccadilloes in the gossip columns.
Their worlds should remain entirely separate, but Bruder exercises a mysterious power over Willis. The squirrelly aristocrat resists this humiliation by enlisting Linda in a Pygmalion episode that excites her fantasies and dashes Bruder's hopes. The plantation quickly grows into a thicket of hatred and passion that Linda can't possibly untangle until she's made a series of misguided decisions about her future, attaining her dreams but losing everything she really wanted.
"If there was a difference between Linda and Bruder, it was this," the narrator writes. "He believed in the cruel inevitability of fate; and she believed that the future was hers to invent."
As Andrew Jackson Blackwood pieces together this story from his agent's gossip and Bruder's legends, the choice between fate and self-invention grows ever more baffling to him and us.
"Pasadena" will test Ebershoff's faith in the resurgence of the long literary novel. "The Corrections" and "The Blind Assassin" earned tremendous popular and critical success, but those tomes were spiked with the kind of modern, ironic wit missing from this old-style romance.
"Pasadena" is a novel to get lost in, caught up in the melodrama of saving a frosted orchard or a chilly heart. This is a land about to be covered with strips of concrete, on the edge of an economic boom that will bury one set of aristocrats and give birth to another, with painful revolutions up and down the social ladder.
Not all the pulp here is orange, but in Ebershoff's hands it's all wildly compelling and intricately drawn. If Linda and Bruder's love meets a predictable doom, it's only as predictable as the tide and just as hypnotic.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.