California sunsets, teenage heartbreak, the inherent terror and liberation of relocating to a new country and the crisis of adolescent identity: these and many more themes make up the bones of Natalie Singer’s book California Calling: A Self Interrogation. The novel is a startling mix of whimsical poetry, journalistic and technical writing, and personal anecdotes that defies any concrete genre but somehow still works beautifully together.
The book is centered around the format of an interrogation, with each anecdotal segment beginning with a question, which she then answers with a story from her life. She continuously connects back to this theme of self-interrogation throughout the novel, using the book as both a diary and a tool for self reflection that resonates deeply with any who have gone through the tumultuous roads of adolescence.
Singer’s prose is lyrical and whimsical, and she’s a captivating, profound storyteller. She creates well crafted metaphors comparing technical accounts of the physical geography of California with experiences or feelings in her life, beautifully weaving together two alternate forms of writing to create a compelling narrative. This book tells the iconic story of adolescence through an unorthodox lens and style, and the rawness and truth it holds completely hooked me.
Though all passages are refreshingly varied, the book centers around a few primary themes: adolescence, longing, identity, family, immigration, sexuality & lust, and self-discovery. Singer begins the book with excerpts from her childhood, and moves the reader through her teenage years into her 20s. She also goes back further and tells stories of her ancestors, of the fears and trials her Jewish relatives faced when immigrating from their poverty-stricken home to Canada. Later, she compares this journey to that which her family made from their home in Canada to California when she was in high school, creating a theme around the sense of assimilation and belonging that most immigrants can relate to.
Early in the book, she states that at a young age she became allured and fascinated by the state of California. She frequently plays with the use of the word “state” in her book. She uses it to describe a physical place (the state of California), refer to a state of being, and connect to jargon frequently used in courtroom interrogations (“state your name for the record”). Through her repeated use of this single word, she is able to tie together multiple themes in the collection, and artfully create a powerful metaphor. The idea of California becomes a theme itself in her life story. She greatly romanticizes the state, painting a picture of California as she saw it through her youthful eyes: dreamy and glamorous and idealized. In this way it becomes a sort of metaphor for youth itself, and in a sense, it is as if this idea of California has become part of her identity.
Though she often writes in a somewhat whimsical manner, her content has a realness and rawness to it that allows others to connect and relate to her truths. She recounts her struggles of coming from a broken home, and discusses the trials and tribulations of navigating the identity crisis that comes with divorce and immigration. She also delves deeply into the struggles of adolescence, of first loves and an emerging sense of sexuality and trying to assimilate into and find your place in society.
The book carries a strong, almost melancholy sense of longing. Her lust for California is mirrored in her lusts of youth, both physical and metaphorical. She longs for California, and all that it stands for. She longs to be a part of the archetypal blond Disney Channel California family, she longs to assimilate and to belong, to feel the way that California is portrayed in the media.
One thing that is truly magical about this book is that everyone can find bits of themselves in it. There are passages that speak so strongly to me that I have them book marked, and I read them over and over. What’s so extraordinary about her experiences is that they are so inherently ordinary. They are easy to relate to and connect with, and anyone who identifies as a woman, teenager, follower of the California dream, or immigrant will surely find echoes of their own stories within her words. Many of my fellow U of R students will likely connect with her writings, as the pitfalls and perils of youth are something all college students can most likely relate to. Her book is truly a work of art, and her retelling of common experiences in an unconventional manner is what never ceases to draw me in, and will I believe entrance many more who read her work.