When Edie Meidav was growing up, she lived on the south side of Berkeley while most of her close friends lived on the north side. Trekking across the top of the UC Berkeley campus, whether by car, bike, or foot, was a routine occurrence.
Meidav now lives in Rhinebeck, New York and teaches writing at Bard College. But she was back in Berkeley this week, tramping over familiar ground, including that route between the south and north sides of town. Meidav was here to visit her mother and to promote her third book, Lola, California.
Heralded by a reviewer in the Daily Beast as a “gorgeous, audacious novel,” Lola, California tells the story of two Berkeley girls who are so close, and whose lives are so entangled, that they create their own kind of geography. One is Rose, a foster child adopted by a liberal, single mother, and the other is Lana, the daughter of a charismatic guru-like professor with a following, who, as the novel opens, is sitting on Death Row.
Set largely in Berkeley, the novel cuts back and forth between 2008 and the Reagan years, a time when the idealism of the Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, and the hippie era was fading and more and more people were slipping into a narcotic stupor. This was the time of Meidav’s adolescence, a time etched sharply in her consciousness for both the freedom it offered and the high price it exacted on many people around her.
“There was this sense the dream was calcifying, there was this buzz kill,” said Meidav, a slight, blonde woman whose acute intellect is immediately evident through her choice of language. “It was the morning after. The lights were on. People who were products of the dream had cataclysmic ends. I really saw casualties among my friends, my friends’ parents.”
Meidav, her parents, and brother and sister moved from Boston to Berkeley in 1974 so her father, a geophysicist born in Poland but raised in Israel, could explore creating a geothermal energy business. Her mother had eclectic interests, and spent time as a BART train engineer, a sociologist, and a playwright. (Her father died in September.)
Meidav, now 44, attended John Muir Elementary School, King Middle School, and College Preparatory School, among others, and remembers the sense of possibility she felt when she came to Berkeley at the age of eight.
“I remember coming here and feeling it was an incredible place to grow up,” she said.
Interesting people were always coming through her house, including “gurus parading through the living room.” Teens who were having difficulty with their own parents moved into their home off Claremont Avenue. Meidav and her friends freely roamed Telegraph Avenue, the Rose Garden, and parts beyond.
“We were running through the streets of Berkeley,” she recalls.
What really stands out from that period – and what became a major theme of Lola, California – was Meidav’s intense female friendships. While she was close to her parents, her friends shaped her in many ways, she said. She and her friends formed their own universe with its own references and touchstones. The brainwaves of teenage girls, Meidav likes to point out, are identical to those of pregnant women – and schizophrenics.
“We talk about family a lot, we talk about romantic love a lot, but we don’t talk about these very crucial friendships,” said Meidav. “You meet a friend at a certain point of life who holds your future possibilities. In fiction, I was interested in this idea of the inherent asymmetry of friendship over time.”
The Lolas’ friendship does not last intact into adulthood, and in the book Meidav explores the vicissitudes of their relationship, especially as it relates to Lana’s father, Vic Mahler, who eventually kills Lana’s mother. That plot point, too, comes from Meidav’s adolescence.
When Meidav left Berkeley for Yale, she didn’t see herself as a writer, even though she was a shy child in a verbal family who “spoke through writing.” Meidav entered college as a biology major, but soon switched to painting, although she also did a lot of dancing. It was while she was in New York doing a semester of dance that it occurred to her to write.
“I had a realization that writing offers a kind of immortality,” said Meidav. “You don’t have to stop when you can’t do a jeté.”
When she returned to Yale, she enrolled in a class with the writer Peter Matthieson.
“He saw me,” said Meidav. “He knew me. He was very supportive of my work. He helped me think that I could become a writer.”
Meidav’s work has been praised highly ever since her first book, The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon, was released in 2002. That book won the Frank Kafka award and was chosen a Best Book of the Year by the LA Times. Crawl Space, her second novel released in 2005, won the Bard Fiction Prize (which eventually led to a teaching position at the school) and was a New York Times’ Editor’s Pick.
Meidav is now working on a book about a Latin American boxer and recently spent two months in Cuba with her husband, the painter Stan Stroh, and their daughters, Elianna, 8, and Dalia, 4. While her family is ensconced in upstate New York, she hopes they will eventually return to Berkeley.
Meidav is scheduled to speak about Lola, California on Thursday July 28th at Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue at 7:30 pm. She will also appear at San Francisco’s Book Passage on August 4th withZYZZAVA’s managing editor, Oscar Villalon, and at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on August 5th with Carolyn Cooke, author of Daughters of the Revolution.
The musician Kevin Salem has written a number of songs inspired by Lola, California. Listen here. A trailer for the book is below.