There are infinite variations on the California Dream, but most Angelenos would probably agree that fame, fortune, sunny skies, golden statuettes and prime real estate are key ingredients. They'd also likely agree that the dream's shadow side only makes it that much more alluring. With her second novel, "This Is Where We Live" (Spiegel & Grau: 324 pp., $25), Janelle Brown follows one young married couple's quest for their own glittering place in the sun, from the giddy brushes with the big time to the desperate decisions they face when the dark clouds of reality start rolling in.
Part social satire, part melodrama, part intimate domestic portrait, the book, due out Tuesday, feels like a natural follow-up to Brown's bestselling 2008 debut, "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," which was set amid the crumbling edifice of a different — though equally evocative — version of the dream: one of Silicon Valley McMansions, country clubs and billion-dollar IPOs. The cover of that book depicted a melting ice cream sundae, its cherry-on-top about to slip off the side; this new one shows a tulip-filled vase being shattered by a tremendous impact, as if shot at close range. Both images evoke that moment when one's ideals and plans collide with the messy chaos of life — the very quality that makes both books such page-turners.
"I love a good story well told," says Brown, a Northern California native who made her name as a journalist in the '90s, covering pop culture, style, politics and technology for Wired and then Salon, before moving to L.A. Part of the plan was to try writing a book, and she completed "All We Ever Wanted" in 2007 between freelance gigs for the New York Times and Vogue, among others.
Now living in Los Feliz with her husband and baby daughter, Brown is just as compelled by her home state's promise as her characters are; however, she's able to examine it with a journalist's objectivity. Sitting for a chat in a cozy dining area off her living room while 9-month-old Auden is with her nanny, Brown says, "It fascinates me how much mythology is wrapped up in the California Dream — how achievable it is or isn't, and what it drives people to do in their pursuit of it."
During recent years, especially, real estate has figured prominently in the dream — and in its collapse. "It's a form of identity and aspiration," says Brown, who, as a homeowner herself, freely admits to being obsessed with the subject. A home, she notes, "became not only a thing you lived in but it was a visible sign of your success and your achievements and it was supposed to help you make more money." Of course, we all know what happened when home prices skyrocketed and loans were handed out like coupons for a new Thai restaurant, and it's on this shaky terrain that Brown has set "This Is Where We Live."
Fittingly, the story begins with an earthquake, as if to underscore the precariousness of it all. We're in the heavily mortgaged Mount Washington kitchen of Claudia and Jeremy, she a filmmaker and he a musician in their mid-30s who don't yet realize that this moment — wine glasses smashing on the floor as the pair cling to one other — is a peak. They're getting ready to attend the Hollywood premiere (no searchlights, but still) of Claudia's film, "Spare Parts" (which wowed them at Sundance), and Jeremy, still shaggily handsome, has a new band and the promise of an album on the horizon.
Think they sound a bit like your neighbors, or that couple you met last month at a cocktail party? Brown has an uncanny eye for contemporary characters and settings, and that's definitely part of the fun. Here in L.A., who doesn't know someone whose quirky, low-budget movie was touted as "the next 'Juno,'" as Claudia's has been, or whose indie rock band rode for a while on a college radio hit?
For Brown, whose husband, Greg Harrison, happens to write and direct independent films, reality provides entrée into the "parallel universe," as she puts it, where her stories take place. "I've certainly seen a lot of friends in creative industries take a beating in the last couple years," she says. "[But] both books are very fictional. I see kernels in things … and I think, 'that would be really interesting if blank happened.'" She adds with a chuckle, "I mean, look, I put my characters through hell, and I would not want anyone that I personally know to go through that."
Indeed, Claudia and Jeremy are in for a series of very unpleasant surprises. As if standing in for every man and woman who believed that the interest-only loan on their house equaled free money, or who actually bought that line about their film project, theirs is a tale of bubbles bursting: home, career, marriage, popping in quick succession. And as the hard facts stack up, the story, told as a dual narrative, becomes one of denial.
"[E]ven as his own mortgage situation blew up in his face," writes Brown from Jeremy's perspective, "he had been able to convince himself that the bigger world crisis that he kept reading about in the newspaper didn't apply specifically to him. After all, he hadn't had a chance to cash in yet!"
Meanwhile Claudia, a nice Midwestern girl who up to this point had been the book's moral center, finds herself contemplating a very dubious proposition with the hopes of resuscitating her career.
"I like putting characters in moments of moral ambiguity and seeing what they do," says Brown. In Claudia's case, "she's tired of playing by the rules, because it's gotten her nowhere. She wants to see what will happen: Will she get struck by lightning or will the gates open for her?"
Into this climate of emotional and ethical turmoil comes the specter of Jeremy's narcissistic ex-girlfriend Aoki, who has, in the years since their breakup, become a museum-caliber artist with three homes. Already a contentious presence in their lives in the form of a large painting of Jeremy on the couple's living room wall, Aoki, who has never played by the rules nor seemingly suffered any consequences, calls Jeremy and Claudia's whole way of living into question.
The real-life kernel that inspired this character was a painting that contemporary artist Elizabeth Peyton gave to some friends of Brown's. "That always fascinated me that they lived in this house like this," she says, gesturing around the charming but modest space, "and they had this Elizabeth Peyton painting, which is not an unvaluable thing to own. So for me it was kind of like, well, what would it mean to a couple if that was a person's ex-girlfriend?"
To Brown, Aoki is "the embodiment of the dream that people have had over the last decade, and the thinking and the mentality that have ultimately led to our collective downfall."
When we think about it, most of us have had an Aoki in our lives, and, when we're lucky, those people or situations can teach us a lesson. Claudia and Jeremy's lessons are, truly, harder won than anybody deserves, but let's be honest: Who wants to read a book about people who make all the right decisions?