BY DAY, DAVID EBERSHOFF IS THE PUBLISHing director of the prestigious, eminently eminent Modern Library. By night, apparently, he writes purple. In his first book, the well-received The Danish Girl, the lushness of his prose is mitigated by interesting subject matter (the first surgically administered sex change) and contained by relative brevity (280 pages). His second book, Rose City, was a slim, uneven collection of stories in which the florid ink blooms erratically. But in his new book, Pasadena, a sprawling, multigenerational family saga set in early-20th-century Southern California, the dam bursts: Opening with just that image, the subsequent 500 pages are a deluge of overblown, grandiose gothic rhetoric, undigested research and meandering melodrama.
Based loosely (and inexplicably) on Wuthering Heights -- an odd choice for a book about progress and change in Southern California -- Pasadena reads as if its author discovered a toy chest full of 19th-century literary devices and stuffed them willy-nilly into his pages. Coincidence, mysterious birth, meddling servants, shifting identities, rags to riches, virtuous poor kids, poor little rich kids, kissing cousins, withheld information and purple prose abound in these pages -- rarely to good effect. Even if viewed as an exercise in postmodern appropriation (which, most decidedly, this book is not), the wanton, artless use of said devices fails to deliver even the drier intellectual satisfactions of irony, parody, allusion and literary legerdemain. Rather, Ebershoff employs these old-fashioned elements for whatever short-range narrative propulsion he can eke from them, with little regard to any long-range consistency in plot or characterization.
The book opens with an epigraph by Emily Brontë:
O God of heaven! The dream of horror, The frightful dream is over now; The sickened heart, the blasting sorrow, The ghastly night, the ghastlier morrow.
Never mind that this rhyme would serve better as the novel's postscript. Ebershoff then borrows a structural framing device from Wuthering Heights, whose main narrative is "told" to one Mr. Lockwood by that most famous of meddling servants, Nelly Dean. In Pasadena, the story is "told" to developer Andrew Jackson Blackwood by one Cherry Nay. Brontë's book tells the story of the Earnshaw family, whose patriarch brings home the moody, dark-skinned, dark-souled Heathcliff, who stirs hatred in Earnshaw's young son Hindley and love in his daughter Catherine. ("I am Heathcliff," Catherine so memorably cries.) Post-puberty, however, Catherine sensibly marries her neighbor, the patrician, anemic Edgar Linton. Heathcliff, heartbroken and enraged, embarks on a 20-year rampage of emotional revenge on Earnshaws and Lintons alike. Just so Pasadena, where another dark, mysterious youth is introduced into a family, and all manner of muddle follows.
Wuthering Heights may be melodrama too, but it's finely and eerily done, the miraculous work of an isolated, short-lived young woman who somehow handled intimations of childhood sexuality, incest and psychosexual enmeshment with uncanny subtlety. One can't blame Ebershoff for admiring the book or turning to it for inspiration. Unfortunately, evoking a classic, cribbing from a classic, climbing on the back of a classic and whipping the hell out of a classic does not necessarily produce another classic.
Ebershoff's tragic heroine is Sieglinde Stumpf, who, over the course of the novel, becomes Linda Stamp, then Lindy Poore. (She lives, you see, in times that are a-changing.) Alas, the poor girl dies on the first page, in a mudslide: "The mudflow slapped her face and plugged her ears, sealed her eyes, stopped her mouth, shoved cold between thighs . . . Linda Stamp, a fishergirl with eight lobster pots at the bottom of the Pacific, was transported in a coffin of mud." At least it seems as if she dies. Two other people were also swept away, Ebershoff tells us. "Yet one," he writes with the theatrical coyness that informs the whole book, "only one, gasped and fought and shuddered and died."
LIKE WUTHERING HEIGHTS, PASADENA IS SET IN two estates; one is Linda's seaside home, an onion farm near Carlsbad called Condor's Nest, and Rancho Pasadena, a rich man's estate in Pasadena. Linda is in her teens the day her father, Dieter, returns home to Condor's Nest from World War I with his version of Heathcliff, a muscular gorilla who was raised in an orphanage up in Pasadena and who may or may not be (it turns out) Linda's half brother. (Once broached, this issue is never referred to again.) This laconic brute of a brooding (possible) brother is named, well, Bruder.
Bruder's back story is a welter of coincidence -- you'd think there were only a half-dozen people in all of France and Germany, Pasadena and San Diego County, the way they keep running into one another, and at just the most revealing moments, too. Bruder is stationed in France with a soldier from Pasadena, one Willis Poore, who owns Rancho Pasadena, with its Beaux Arts mansion, 60 acres of gardens and a hundred-acre orange grove. Bruder catches Poore in a cowardly, desperate act and promises to keep quiet about it in exchange for the rancho upon Poore's demise. So, as you might have guessed from his surname, wealthy Willis Poore is really impoverished -- a milquetoast whose legacy belongs to the brutish Bruder.
If that isn't enough, Bruder also discovers Dieter in a different act of wartime treachery and makes a different bargain with him: In exchange for his life, Dieter must hand over his own daughter -- that beautiful fishergirl. Bruder and Linda, it turns out, like each other -- they both like to swim and work, and they may, after all, be siblings. Oh, but we should forget that -- the author certainly has. For some inscrutable reason -- possibly because Ebershoff himself finds heterosexual behavior inscrutable, or because if the two principals actually got together, the story would end long before Ebershoff could stuff in all his research -- Bruder and Linda never manage to express their feelings for each other, whatever those feelings may be -- they change from page to page according to the author's whim.
Bruder, who supposedly loves Linda, leaves Condor's Nest for Pasadena. Years pass before he sends for her, and even then he can't pick her up at the train, but sends Captain Poore to fetch her. Of course, the aristocratic, snobby, handsome weakling of a rich guy falls for the noble fishergirl. And so it goes. What is meant to resemble that famous Wuthering Heights triangle -- Edgar Linton, Heathcliff and Catherine -- is finally closer to another famous three-way: Popeye, Brutus and Olive Oyl.
EBERSHOFF DID DO AN IMPRESSIVE AMOUNT of research for Pasadena, and for this reader, a native Altadenan, the history was the most compelling aspect of the novel, even if facts and period details are clumsily shoehorned into the narrative.
To give him credit, Ebershoff's prolixity is in and of itself impressive. To produce so many pages at such a fevered pitch! Images flow from his pen like, well, ink, and while a few are artfully done, most are overblown, and many are laughably bad. The humor is largely if not exclusively unintentional. Many eyes roll. Even hands roll. Pulses pant. Within a few pages, Linda, fantasizing about Bruder, "imagined the smell of sweat, the musk of a working heart," "felt her heart rise high in her chest like a turnip-shape buoy lifted by a wave," and ". . . had assumed that her love could continue to blossom from her heart's bloody bulb, one red-faced flower after another, pressing upon the world a weeping bouquet of love; love as endless as spring feels on an April night, when white flowers shawled the orange trees; enough for everyone."
PASADENA | By DAVID EBERSHOFF | Random House | 485 pages | $25 hardcover