Meredith Maran sets her new novel against a backdrop of long-gone Berkeley landmarks, like Hink’s Department Store on Shattuck.

Berkeley may not equal Paris as a city of love, but it is the place where a lot of loving happens in Meredith Maran’s first novel, a Theory of Small Earthquakes.

The book is the story of Alison and Zoe, who meet at Oberlin College in 1983, fall in love, and eventually move to Berkeley.

They sort of choose the city by random, as evidenced by this snippet of dialogue:

“I’ve never even been to Berkeley. Have you?” asks Alison.

“I’ve seen pictures. Blue sky. Cute houses. Sit-ins at Sproul Plaza. An artist in every garret. What more do we need to know?”

Berkeley in the mid-1980s was hardly pristine, and the powerful countercultural movements of the late 1960s and 1970s had passed. But Maran, who has set three of her 10 non-fiction books in Berkeley, clearly loves the city, quirks and all, and that affection comes through in passage after passage.

Here is a scene where Alison is pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of the old Berkeley Bowl:

“Hey!” Alison yelped as a gray-haired, bushy bearded man in a Food Not Bombs T-shirt ran over her foot with his cart.

“’My bad,’ he said giving Alison a ‘we’re in this together’ smile, the standard apology for shopping injuries inflicted in the well-stocked sardine can of a store. The man reached over Alison’s head to grab a bunch of organic arugula, assaulting her this time with his un-deodorized underarm.”

Alison and Zoe take walks down Shattuck Avenue, where they watch as the former Hink’s Department store is remodeled into the Shattuck Theater. They pass panhandlers, the E-Z Stop deli, the Other Change of Hobbit bookstore, and Edy’s Soda Shop.

In another scene, Berkeley’s politics are laid bare: “The downtown Berkeley BART station was surrounded by the usual knot of demonstrators walking in the usual small circle, waving the usual homemade picket signs. The injustice du jour was the US involvement in the Gulf War, but one rogue sign sign read ‘I’m already against the next war.’”

The blissful patina of Berkeley does not last long, though. Alison, eager to have a child in a traditional relationship, leaves Zoe for her male editor at, of course, Mother Jones. But Zoe reappears once the child is born and Maran spends much of the book exploring the love that binds the three adults and child together in an unconventional family.

The San Francisco Chronicle had high praise for A Theory of Small Earthquakes, published by Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Berkeley’s Counterpoint Books.

“Maran brings her trademark humor and insight to her fiction, crafting a tale that brings a human, and very loving , face to the public debate over gay marriage and what makes a family,” wrote Gayle Brandeis.

Meredith Maran

Maran will talk about the book with Terry McMillian, the author of Waiting to Exhale, on February 22 at Berkeley Arts & Letters at the Hillside Club.

Much of the description in the book came straight from Maran’s memory. She moved to Berkeley with her boyfriend in the early 1970s. They parked their red Volkswagon van in the driveway of a communal house on Cypress Street. She worked at the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective (located on Martin Luther King (then called Grove Street, where the bail bondsman is now.) She later became a nursing student at Grove Street College, and later still, a writer.

Maran shed some light on her mindset in an interview published on the website of Zyzzyva, a literary magazine. She was interviewed by managing editor Oscar Villalon:

Zyzzyva: When we meet Alison and Zoe, they’re both undergraduates, and that allows you to have some fun depicting political correctness on college campuses in the early ‘80s. But you do so with some tenderness. Can you tell me what you found insufferable about that mind set as well as what you found reaffirming?

Meredith Maran: Oh, the hours of our lives we’ll never get back, sitting in all those meetings and doing all that “criticism/self-criticism” and examining each other’s cervices and voting on which sexual orientation to adopt. Recently, while shopping at Berkeley Bowl, I ran into one of my Berkeley Women’s Health Collective “sisters” who went lesbian in the 1980s. As she introduced me to her husband, it gave me a little frisson to realize there are at least 20 women in Berkeley, including me, who are undoubtedly better acquainted with her cervix than he is.

But you’re right; I have affectionate memories of those times. Smashing monogamy and growing out my armpit hair was, um, liberating while it lasted. And I don’t find the self-righteousness of that era any more insufferable than the passion and dogmatism of any other. One possible exception is the Occupy movement, which I adore for its insistence on refusing authority, which goes beyond questioning it.

Read Zyzzyva’s complete interview with Meredith Maran.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...