Victor Mahler, one of the main characters in Edie Meidav’s new novel, was a cult leader in the 1970′s. Fast forward to 2008 and he sits on death row, convicted of murdering his wife, Mary. With a countdown of ten days, his missing daughter’s old friend, Rose, now an attorney, searches for Lana with the hope of reuniting her with her father, and possibly convincing her to testify at a last-minute hearing on Mahler’s behalf.

The story backtracks, then, to the close relationship between Lana and Rose when they were teenagers and young adults–girls who called themselves Lola 1 and Lola 2 in reference to The Kinks rock song of the 70s. Their relationship is complicated–sensuous but not lesbian, a friendship fueled by mutual attraction and common disregard for parental authority. They seem helpless, though, to ignore the mocking profundities Vic Mahler uses to instruct them in the ways of life, both of them obviously under the spell of his larger-than-life persona.

Edie Meidav has captured the essence of their friendship and co-dependency in sharp-edged and haunting prose, but she doesn’t stop there. Her portrayal of Vic Mahler is fascinating, a man who is as hard on himself as everyone who crosses his  path–a character many of us have at least glimpsed in our own lives–glimpsed and then avoided for fear we couldn’t withstand his scrutiny. Here is an excerpt, an interaction between Mahler, Rose, and Lana as a day at the beach draws to a close:

But eventually Lana’s father returns, bobbing up and down in the waves. No one mentions his swim or the dragon of fear raised in the girls. Instead they lean back, hands planted on the beach, mock casual, seeing him so alive. Hair wet, profile rugged, attitude impatient, handsome and grilling them as if he must make an important decision.

He wants to know. “Which do you like more, girls? Mountains or ocean? Mountains or ocean?” When riled, he speaks in pairs, a metaphysical weight hinging on their response.

“Mountains with ocean,” says Rose, hedging bets.

“Neither,” says Lana, smirking.

He wants to get them somehow, riddle their teenage confidence. “Do you two believe God made man before woman?”

When they don’t know, his answer is this: he scoops up a handful of sand, leaving a pit and making a small mound. “You see? Tell this to people who accuse me of being antifeminist. You see who really came first?”

“I don’t,” says Lana. “I have no idea what you’re saying.”

And then he looks at her perplexed, dark child in her new sweater, his girl offspring, shaking his head as if he has fallen into some unfortunate spell that he should have gotten rid of at least fifteen years earlier. And then wants to wear his wet clothes back to the car, puddling the driver’s seat, hurrying everyone home to Berkeley, cautioning them not to wear the blue sweaters around either of their mothers, a condition they accept, just one part of an eccentric day with a man whose odd self, like his daughter’s, doesn’t make it easy for people to fall in love and so most of them can’t help but go ahead and fall.

My favorite aspect of the book is Rose’s obsession with trying to save what’s left of the Mahler family, her desire to resurrect her relationship with Lana, and to make sense of her own continued devotion to their memory. I admired the author’s strategy in setting her up as the Mahlers’ historian, the one who sympathized with Mary Mahler in spite of her friendship with Lana, and finally, as keeper (at least briefly) of a terrible secret. The setting of the story is pure magic as well–Berkeley in the 80′s provides a perfect backdrop for the tweedy professor (Mahler), his brainy wife, and out-of-control daughter.

The novel covers a span of forty-plus years and introduces a host of interesting characters. It ends with simultaneous and shocking events that, by that time, seem preordained, thanks to the author’s careful crafting of the characters up to that point. Lola California is brutal in its honesty and employs a winning combination of mystery, suspense, and horror.

Sue Ellis

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