four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
user_rating: 
0
A-CrossingCaliforniaThe title’s "California" refers to California Avenue, a sort of class demarcation line between Chicago’s West Side neighborhood and its middle-class East Side. Langer’s sharp and heartfelt debut revolves around three households: the Rovners, a West Side Jewish family awash in sex and its machinations; the Wasserstroms, an East Side Jewish family wrestling with bad jobs and bat mitzvahs; and the Wills, an East Side African-American mother and son who work hard with an eye toward the future. As the Iran hostage crisis and its surrounding tumult grip the nation, five different teens and their parents unexpectedly crash into each other’s lives.
Riverhead. 432 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1573222747

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Langer’s instinct for getting things right is never so accurate as in the way he understands how to make the period’s atmosphere play like movie music behind the densely plotted actions of his characters. … Giving [the characters] up—closing the book and breaking the spell — is the worst part of this engrossing debut novel." Roger Gathman

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] wickedly witty novel. [Langer’s] so good at social satire that it draws him away from what he does even better: the tender portrayal of smart, lonely people struggling to cobble together some meaning." Ron Charles

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"I can think of no other book that so captures the experience of being young just as Reaganism dawned. …[The TV series] Freaks and Geeks and Crossing California deal with kids at the same moment in history, but, even more than that, they share a sensibility: an acerbic, eye-rolling acceptance of the perfect hell of being a teenager." Claire Dederer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps [Langer’s] greatest achievement is his gift for presenting characters so vividly that we hear their distinct and wonderful voices, feel deeply their heartaches and desires. … Crossing California is serious and heartfelt; it is also laugh-out-loud funny." Victoria Zackheim

Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[The novel] delivers on its promise to evoke the mood, sights and sounds of a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago in 1979. … In the end, however, too little happens to too many people, and the book is too long to rest on atmosphere alone." Karen Sandstrom

Critical Summary

Until recently, Langer was known primarily as a playwright and the author of a film festival compendium, but that’s about to change. Reviewers have heaped the kind of praise on Crossing California for which most first-time novelists would sacrifice their coffee and nicotine. Critics zeroed in on Langer’s biting wit (the youngest Rovner’s song, "My Love Ain’t Always Orthodox," is a particular fave) and lauded his depiction of youthful disaffection, embodied in characters like Jill, the intellectual outcast who defends the Ayatollah Khomeini in order to get a rise from her peers. The minor complaints: a few blanched at Langer’s frank depiction of adolescent sexual high jinks and alleged that California sinks from the weight of its multiple story lines. The Plain Dealer claims the novel does not deliver on its ambition, while all the other critics enthusiastically say it does.