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COVER REVIEW

Sometimes a Rose Is Just a Rose

PASADENA: A Novel, By David Ebershoff, Random House: 494 pp., $24.95

July 07, 2002|DAVID PLANTE | David Plante is the author of numerous novels, including "The Family," "The Woods," "Annunciation" and "The Age of Terror."

Clearly, the city of Pasadena is vital to David Ebershoff. His first novel, "The Danish Girl," is set in Copenhagen, but in it the wife of the man who becomes the Danish girl is from Pasadena. In his second book, a collection of stories called "The Rose City," the young men coming to terms with their attraction to other young men may live on the East Coast, but they come from--or are about to go to--Pasadena. It is, as one character says, "where the real history is." Ebershoff's new novel, "Pasadena," puts that city at its center.

The books are very different from one another. "The Danish Girl" has a lightness, a brightness of touch that makes one think of an operetta. The stories in "The Rose City," for all their quirky humor, are darker in tone and more romantic, tending to give way--at times too obviously--to unhappiness. They are like a recital of romantic lieder. "Pasadena" is like a grand opera.

In fact, Ebershoff seems to have intended the novel to be a grand opera by virtue of the references in it, references that lend his story a near-Wagnerian dimension.

A brother and sister are named Siegmund and Sieglinde. Two incidental burros are called Tristan and Isolde. One of the main characters thinks of depictions of Norse goddesses hanging over her father's bed: "the breastplates, like helmets, worn by women with long double braids." And the story is told in long aria-like passages, at times by gossip columnist Cherry "Chatty" Nay to Andrew Blackwood, who is keen to buy the Rancho Pasadena, a vast orange-growing estate whose history is a concentrated history of Southern California. Nay tells Blackwood about the principal and most fated character of the novel, "Mr. Bruder's history is complex." It is, and so is the telling of it.

Central to the complexity is a triangle: the brooding Bruder; Linda, the girl he is in love with; and Willis Poore, the owner of the estate, who marries Linda. Almost halfway through, Blackwood asks Bruder how it happened that, as the Rancho Pasadena belonged to Poore, he, Bruder, managed to become its owner. Bruder, described as withdrawn and reticent, then engages in one of the arias to tell about himself and his relationships with Linda and Poore:

"Let me start at the beginning."

"Yes, at the beginning."

Whereupon he tells the story of how he and Poore, two young Californians fighting for the Allies, find themselves together in 1918 during World War I, in France, in a beechwood forest, working in a depot repairing camouflaged automobiles.

For days, no automobiles come, and the two are isolated in the forest, not knowing who is winning the war. Poore sets the depot on fire and almost dies in the flames. Rescued by Bruder, he explains he had a plan: to make the depot seem to have been shelled by the Germans, which would have allowed him and Bruder to escape.

But the results were disastrous. Grievously wounded, Poore pleads with Bruder for water. (This scene appears set up so that Bruder, having nothing with which to carry water from a stream, not even his leaky boots, takes water to Poore in his mouth. Bruder recounts to Blackwood that "with surprisingly little embarrassment we brought our lips together," though after carrying the water for a quarter of a mile, only spittle is left in Bruder's mouth. This suggests a homoerotic contact, and I mention it parenthetically because it occurs only once and raises in the reader an expectation that is more distraction than anything else.) Fast expiring, Poore promises Bruder anything if he would tell people he died an honorable man. Bruder knows what he wants from Poore: He wants the Rancho Pasadena.

But he also saves Poore, an episode that is recounted almost 200 pages later, in another aria by Bruder to Blackwood. Desperate to save Poore, Bruder goes to the stream, where he meets a man from California named Dieter, who is selling tin cups for 5 cents, and with this cup Bruder is able to carry water to his dying comrade, who is taken soon thereafter to a hospital to convalesce.

Bruder remains to guard the burned-out depot. Wandering one evening in the forest, he encounters Dieter overlooking a young German raping a French girl whom he had supplied, against her will, to the German for cash. Appalled, Bruder is about to shoot Dieter--the soldier and the girl having run away--but Dieter, to save himself, promises him his daughter in California, and Bruder accepts. The girl is called Sieglinde, later renamed Linda. Bruder and Poore return to California where Bruder lives on the estate with Linda in an out building as an agent for Poore. But Poore falls in love with Linda and she moves to the big house, the consequences of which are fatal to all three.

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