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Elsewhere, California

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  455 ratings  ·  68 reviews
We first met Avery in two of the stories featured in Dana Johnson’s award-winning collection Break Any Woman Down. As a young girl, she and her family escape the violent streets of Los Angeles to a more gentrified existence in suburban West Covina. This average life, filled with school, trips to 7-Eleven to gawk at Tiger Beat magazine, and family outings to Dodger Stadium, ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 12th 2012 by Counterpoint (first published June 1st 2012)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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Angela Flournoy
Jul 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Dana Johnson lived in the same LA County suburb I grew up in, and went to the same middle school, high school and college I attended. This novel is the coming-over-age story I doubt I'll ever have the courage to write, about growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, negotiating race and identity in a very particular socioeconomic space, and discovering one's voice through art. It is beautifully written and full of such perfect descriptions of place that I felt homesick throughout. The narrator Avery ...more
Oct 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: l-a
Three and 3/4 stars.

Where you’re from and what you look like might not be who you are.

Avery Arlington, a black girl originally from South L.A. and West Covina, grows into a university-educated artist, marries a very successful Italian immigrant businessman, and comes to live in the Hollywood Hills, while staying in touch with her white wild-child girlhood best friend Brenna and a ne’er-do-well cousin. Alternating chapters flash back to her childhood, episodes that illustrate the rural simplici
Aug 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars

So, let me say that, initially, the language threw me off so badly that I thought about putting the book down. Then I remembered that I spoke exactly the way Avery did when I was a child.


Suddenly, I realized that I had a bit more in common with this character than I'd assumed. We both had life experiences that resulted in transitions in character that manifested in our speech, primarily. This caused an immediate frisson in our connection with our families, but we still managed to
Wilhelmina Jenkins
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Probably 4 1/2 stars, but I bumped it up to 5 because this book touched by heart. I really loved the protagonist, Avery, and her struggle to find herself, to be her own kind of black girl. This book has an interesting structure - alternating chapters from her childhood and her adulthood. Her voice as a child seemed spot-on to me. Avery is an artist, even before she knows it herself and I loved watching her discover that. Avery does not fit it easily anywhere - in her family, in school, anywhere ...more
Jun 17, 2012 rated it really liked it

This is obviously a book about identity boundaries and over stepping them.
Avery, a black child growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, CA doesn't exactly have the tastes that one would expect of a black child of the 70's, 80's. Avery is the main character of this novel, and her story is told throughout the book alternately by both her adult and child-to-adult voice. I think the objective of the writer is to examine and expose the boundaries of blackness and feminine identity. I mean, how of
Patrick O'Neil
Jul 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Voice and dialogue, got to have voice and dialogue, otherwise it's just a descriptive narrative and somewhere around the hundredth fluffy description and transcribed imagery I get bored. I mean I've read books that were all that, but they didn't grip me and keep me interested. I'll read a slightly less well written novel with a great voice and tight dialogue over flowery chit-chat any day. Thankfully this compromise is not the case with Dana Johnson's Elsewhere, California. Her protagonist, a yo ...more
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Vanellope by: a friend
It was good! I really liked Avery. I loved her honesty and openness, and seeing the world through her eyes. She's a complex character, and we see her grow so much throughout the book, and I really enjoyed that.

I would say, though, that none of the rest of the characters grew or developed at all. It didn't bother as much because the book really centered around Avery, and she was a great character, but still. I also feel like a lot of the conflicts of relationships between people were left unreso
Lorinda Toledo
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Meticulously crafted book that interweaves past and present, tracing the coming-of-age story of Avery, a black female artist grappling to understand herself in a world that always seems to fit wrong. This novel is a quick read, but each scene, each sentence is packed full of significance. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a work that manages to capture the nuanced experience of daily life in a racialized world, while also destroying one-dimensional categorizations.
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
I love the protagonist, Avery. Fascinating character with whom to explore the theme of shifting identity and traversing social worlds. The writing, using mainly two different styles--one for her youth and one for her more educated adapted adult self--was beautiful. Avery as a young girl's voice was so well wrought.

I did long for more development of her cousin, Keith, after his key incident with Avery's bestie Brenna. His life went off the rails at that point but we don't get to see much of that
Mar 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned
i wonder which stater bros. she walked to.
Jul 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
This novel reminded me of Zadie Smith's NW in a lot of ways. The relationship between Avery (the black protagonist) and Brenna (her white best friend) was reminiscent of the relationship between Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah in NW, and Keisha's transformation to Natalie was similar to Avery's changing voice as she becomes more exposed to white culture. Both novels explore expectations dictated by race through the context of interracial relationships and characters who defy cultural stereotypes ...more
I had a hard time getting into this book. There's no plot, just a naïve girl growing up in Southern California. Yet, this is where I connected. I grew up about the same place, about the same time and also quite clueless, despite my reading and everything. It seemed to be trying very desperately to say something about race. That is front and center. Yet it doesn't go anywhere. The narrator ends up doing art, but without any guidance yet still "subversive" and full of subtext. The novel felt like ...more
Aug 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
You’ve probably never heard of Avery Arlington, the protagonist of Dana Johnson’s novel “Elsewhere, California,” but you know her. She’s the childhood friend whose parents moved her out of the ’hood, and you never saw her again. She’s the awkward, only black girl in class. She’s the preteen who lingers at the magazine rack in 7-Eleven dreaming about being anyone other than who she is. She’s the college roommate or classmate who always looked and acted like she didn’t quite belong at an elite pri ...more
Kate Maruyama
Nov 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
The pain of adolescence and that point in adulthood where we finally figure out who we are are woven together throughout this very smart book. Johnson nails dialogue, as her protagonist, Avery's voice goes from childhood in South Central to growing up in the valley to gentrification in the Hollywood Hills. But all of Avery's voices anchor us firmly in where she is at the moment. Johnson creates an overall personal journey for our heroine without losing tension or interest along the way. ...more
Aug 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book is all about Avery. It's one of the most character-driven books I've read in a while. On the one hand, nothing much happens, but on the other, Avery grows up, and we get to watch her change with every chapter. As a result, from a writer/reader perspective, this is a masterclass on voice and tone.

But it's also a book about race. It provides a piercing description of growing up black in suburban California in the 70s, and what has (and has not) changed today. It's a great read.
Jun 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
An excellent follow-up to her Flannery O'Connor Award-winning collection, Break Any Woman Down.

For a full review, see my blog:
Aug 20, 2012 rated it liked it
Pretty good. I liked Avery but I often wanted to shake her . . . .until the end of the book : ).
Nov 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Each individual part was underwhelming, but as a whole, much better than the parts (good thing I did not read this in short story or excerpt form).
Sep 25, 2020 rated it liked it
In author Dana Johnson's first novel 'Elsewhere, California', family, friendships, and the defining of one's identity are tackled, in this seemingly coming of age tale.

"Now I know that there is, sometimes, an extraordinary difference between how someone appears, how they may act, and what is truly the matter, the person, at hand".

The above quote sums up exactly what protagonist Avery is grappling with throughout this novel. The idea of attempting to define her identity in an absolute and unrest
Feb 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was so amped to read this book when I first heard about it. There were a lot of moments when I felt like the text transported me to California with Avery's inner circle and to my own childhood which is so similar to Avery's that I think that's what really endears me to the book as a whole. Then there were a lot of moments when I was ready for it to end and getting a little antsy like a two year old made to sit still for more than 30 minutes.

The best parts about this book are the characters. T
Jul 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fell in love with the main character -- Avery -- right away, an African American girl growing up in LA and then moving (just slightly farther away) to a southern California suburb. Just a few chapters in, we are introduced to Avery as a young woman, a college grad and professional artist, living with her successful Italian boyfriend in an architect-designed house up in the hills. These two parts of Avery's life -- and her family and friends -- are so skillfully braided together by Dana Johnson t ...more
Bailey Bryant
Mar 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
A slow-burning, coming-of-age novel rooted in Californian nostalgia and black femininity. Not universal, but deeply thoughtful and true to the youthful struggle for belonging. I wish there were more books like this so that I could have some foundation to compare it to. The exploration of Avery's navigating her blackness, art, education and relationships, romantic and otherwise, rang true to me in an unsettling way. They are presented with such clarity and innocence it's almost startling. Most no ...more
Morgan Miller-Portales
Jan 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
‘Elsewhere, California’, Dana Johnson’s debut novel is contemplative literary fiction at its best. Leaving behind the land of opportunity story arc in favour of an alternate narrative in which the central protagonist, Avery, oscillates between who she has become and who she once was, Johnson creates a pitch-perfect world in which everyday racism, class issues and violence are salient tropes that transcend life itself. Drawing on a bewildering range of narrative mechanisms, this novel is fraught ...more
Alternating between the voice of her unaffected youth and that of her established adulthood, collagist Avery explores her identity and long-term desires alongside the demands of both a traditionalist, working class family and the expectations of the white community in which she's immersed. Avery's examinations of class and the childhood friends who challenge her preconceptions make for a genuine and empathetic telling. Whatever the book may miss in ultimate scope, it more than makes up for in si ...more
Stephanie Schilling
Apr 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Probably a 4.5 stars for me- the ending was really powerful. I enjoyed this book and I adored looking at the world through Avery’s eyes. I would be happy to continue to read her narration indefinitely. This seemed like such an American story to me. I could see this being good assigned reading at high schools and colleges because there is a lot to think about and it so beautifully addresses race in this country.
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
I made a playlist while reading, just adding a song whenever a new artist or lyric got mentioned. It's so all over the place in mood and genre and era, which is fitting for how much Avery grows and tries on different identities. Seeing her find the art and music that speaks to her is a huge part of that. ...more
Mar 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I just really need everyone to be nice to Avery. And I really, really need to see her four pieces in the art show, especially the self-portrait. I’ve never felt more robbed that a character in a book is fiction, and not a real person I could theoretically try to befriend. I want to know what Avery thinks about everything.
Apr 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a rare book that gained steam and got better as it progressed. I felt a distance from the narrator at first, but I grew to understand her rhythms and thought process, and ended up caring about how her life turned out, along with those of her best friend and cousin. Wonderful read for those who want to explore African-American experience and life in California.
Moira DeNike
Jun 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
I loved this gem of a book. I'm usually drawn to more of a satisfying plot-driven story, and while this is better described as a character study, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This portrait of a woman growing up in southern California in the 70s and 80s lays bare race, class, and friendship with subtle and compelling artistry. The music references all brought me back, which was fun, too! ...more
Oct 18, 2019 rated it liked it
A coming of age story, offering an interesting perspective of race, upbringing and its impact on opportunity. I wanted more of a plot - this meanders between past and present - and wasn’t as satisfied with the ending as I think the author wanted me to be.
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My progress on Elsewhere California 4 6 Oct 02, 2012 03:09PM  

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