Ana of California is one of those books that had to grow on me. This isn’t particularly a problem with the book but more my mood going into it. I guess I was hoping for something more, but Andi Teran’s story tends to move at a more sedate pace than I was expecting. I would hesitate to describe this as “coming of age” or anything so grand as that, but this is a novel where small things have big impacts for the protagonist and the people around her.
Ana Cortez is almost sixteen and an orphan. Out of options—going back to the group home is not an option—she reluctantly agrees to work on a farm in the small town of Hadley for the summer. The farm is managed by a brother-sister team, the brother not really down with Ana’s presence, the sister far more enthusiastic. As Ana gets to know her new foster family and meets more people her age in Hadley, her role as fish-out-of-water provokes all manner of small conflicts that allow us to get to know these characters and, ultimately, Ana to know herself.
Ana of California epitomizes, in some ways, telling rather than showing. I say this because telling is not necessarily as problematic as people make it out to be—there are situations where exposition is a welcome respite. In places, Teran uses this to her advantage, with conversations between characters fleshing out the backstory and providing insight into the dynamics of Hadley prior to Ana’s arrival. In other places, though, the telling-not-showing vibe is less useful. Teran’s omniscient narrator has a habit of jumping into various characters’ heads—not in and of itself a bad thing—and then explaining a bunch of stuff to us that we then hear again, much later, when Ana learns it. This narrative choice is interesting—this would be a very different story if it were told solely from Ana’s perspective—but the precise way in which Teran executes it leaves much to be desired.
These qualms didn’t sit well with me for the first part of the story, but my mood gradually improved. As Ana interacts more with the residents of Hadley, starts to form relationships, starts making her own choices—good or bad—and basically exercises more agency, I warmed up, both to her and to this book. Her learning curve feels real and believable. And for a story that often exists in a low gear, it has surprising moments where it ramps up to high gear and full speed and delivers insightful commentary on racism, poverty, crime, etc. This novel is far from fluffy, and I’m really glad I stuck with it.
Abbie’s little romantic arc doesn’t do much for me. I’m much more partial to Ana’s relationships, both her complicated thing with Cole and her friendship with Rye. In the case of Cole, there’s definitely a filigree of romance, but it’s not always there. And I really like the ambiguity of the ending, both in terms of how Cole makes that decision, and how they might or might not end up “together” (for some value of together). The whole development of this relationship steers clear of some of the more stereotypical tropes of girl-meets-boy-girl-falls-for-boy, for which I’m grateful. Similarly, Ana’s friendship with Rye has some interesting ups-and-downs that fit with her outsider role in Hadley, from the way Rye constantly misjudges Ana’s past to Ana not always being ready to discuss her feelings because, hey, this is the first time she’s actually had a best friend.
It has been far too long since I read Anne of Green Gables, so I’m not going to compare Ana of California to its influence. Suffice it to say that I can see the parallels. In short, while Teran’s writing doesn’t always work for me, and the story might be so-so, I came to appreciate this book’s emotional intelligence. Depending on what you’re looking for, that might actually be all you need.