2019 in Review

In a lot of ways 2019 felt like a pretty typical reading year for me. I finished 96 books, and my total is usually somewhere in the 90s. I read more books by women than men, and a little over a third of the books I read were by authors of color. My reading included a mix of old and new but skewed toward the new than I’d like, mostly because of my interest in the Tournament of Books. I didn’t read as many books in translation or books from outside the US and UK as I’d like, but more than in some years. So far, so normal.

As for my favorites of the year, I’ve narrowed it down to ten (first time reads only; otherwise, I’d have to add King Hereafter, which is an all-time favorite and difficult to beat in any year). Here they are, listed in the order that I read them:

  1. Broken Harbor by Tana French. My favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad books.
  2. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset. A masterpiece of historical fiction.
  3. Melmoth by Sara Perry. A perfect follow-up to Kristin Lavransdatter. Together, these books made for a fascinating exploration of the effects of sin and guilt.
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. A harrowing story of abuse and how communities can turn toward evil.
  5. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. What seems like a great novel about a spinster finding her own way in the world takes a surprising turn that makes it even better.
  6. Lying Awake by Mark Salzman. A fascinating exploration of faith and doubt.
  7. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. This has a similar premise as The Sparrow, an all-time favorite, but this story of space evangelism goes in an entirely different direction that is equally harrowing.
  8. The Brontes by Juliet Barker. A fantastic biography that made me fall in love with the Brontes yet again.
  9. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. A thoughtful exploration of the long-term effects of trauma on a community, including those who are not necessarily the primary sufferers.
  10. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. A fabulous collection of stories that bend reality.

Honorable mentions go to Dopesick by Beth Macy, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier, Inspired by Rachel Held Evans, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Ninepins by Rosy Thornton, Big Sky by Kate Atkinson, They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Horace McCoy, Daisy Jones and the Six by Tara Jenkins Reid, The Heaven Tree trilogy by Edith Pargeter, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

The biggest change this year was that I took a long, unplanned blogging break for the first time since I started blogging in 2008. I’ve often said that, for me, writing about some of my reading just wouldn’t work. I write about all of it or none of it, and that proved to be the case. When I took a break, mostly because I wasn’t in the mood, I couldn’t get up steam again for months. But I missed having a journal with my own thoughts, so I started back up again this fall. I’m still not sure whether, or how long, or to what extent I’ll keep at it.

One thing I realized while I was on break was that I’m tired of so many opinions on everything. And that included my own. It was nice not to form opinions on all my reading for a while. My qualms are not so much about “right” and “wrong” opinions but about how opinions are complicated and often in progress. My blog is a place where I noodle around in my thinking. I don’t necessarily want to make a judgment, and I certainly don’t want my judgment to be perceived as the definitive one, or even my own final one. But is there a place for such noodling anymore?

Ideally, blogs are a place to open up conversation. I share my experience reading a book, another person shares theirs, and our different views open a book up to someone else in a way a that simple yay or nay from either of us would not. But conversation doesn’t happen so much on blogs these days. Comments are spread across the internet, onto Twitter, Goodreads, Litsy, Instagram, etc. I’ve experimented with all of these platforms, and there are things I like and dislike about all of them. For me, only a blog allows for the kind of concentrated thought I enjoy.

Yet, concentrated thought takes time, and maybe, without the conversation that arises out of a blog post, there are better ways I could spend my time. I liked assembling my short reviews of my reading while on break, so maybe I could do that each month, for record-keeping purposes, with longer posts for books that really got my brain going. But I’m such a creature of habit that I may end up only doing those monthly posts. And maybe that’s ok. I’ll just see where my mood takes me.

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Fleishman is in Trouble

For a long time, Toby Fleishman and his wife Rachel weren’t happy together, and the decision to divorce felt like a relief. But then, in the midst of the separation period, Rachel takes off for a yoga retreat, a day earlier than planned, and then … just doesn’t return, leaving Toby to manage their two kids on his own, all while juggling his career and his newly active dating/sex life.

At first glance, Fleishman Is in Trouble sounds like it’ll be some sort of Mr. Mom story, where the dad finally learns what the mom has had to manage all these years. But author Taffy Brodesser-Akner is up to something much more subversive and clever, and her storytelling method forces readers to reconsider all of their preconceived ideas about gender, sex, and marriage. You see, it turns out that Toby was, throughout the marriage, the more active and affectionate parent, while Rachel was working late nights and focusing on her career seemingly at the expense of the kids. But it’s even more complicated than that.

This novel could be compared to Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise in that the story we’re told at the start isn’t the complete story, and narrative shifts later in the book allow us to see the story in a new light. But I think the perspective shifts in this book are more complicated and interesting.

Early on in the novel, it becomes evident that this third-person narrative is actually a first-person narrative told by an interested observer, who happens to be a long-time friend of Toby’s, and she has her own agenda that becomes more clear as the book goes on as she uses Toby’s story to tell a larger story about marriage and a personal story about her own marriage. Her belief is that such a story will only be heard if it is told through a man’s perspective. It’s what she learned when on the staff of a men’s magazine, writing profiles about men:

In these monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored, the way I felt ignored, They felt like they’d failed. They had regret. They said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or narcissistic. I imposed my narrative onto theirs, like in one of those biology textbooks where you can place the musculature picture over the bone picture of the human body: I wrote about my problems through them.

That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man. Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.

This is, essentially, her method in telling the story of Toby Fleishman, and later, of Rachel Fleishman. It’s not as simple as a role reversal story, however, with Toby taking the traditionally female role. Some of Rachel’s sufferings are very specific to women. I suspect, too, that Rachel’s actions would be read differently if she were a man. For myself, I could see that she was being irresponsible, but I could also understand her feelings, as I could understand Toby’s. Brodesser-Akner makes gendered expectations central to the story without allowing the dilemmas to either cut along clear general lines or entirely subvert them.

I imagine some readers will find their rich-people problems tiresome, but heartache in relationships is universal. Some might, like me, be inclined to think the Fleishmans would be better off if they were willing to accept a less luxurious lifestyle, but that very point turns out to be a bone of contention between them. How much is truly necessary?

And there’s always that additional narrator, imposing her narrative onto that of the Fleishmans, choosing which facts to reveal and when to reveal them. And we, the readers, interpret the book through our own narrative biases. I was suspicious of the Toby-centric perspective from the start because of my own biases. And, to some degree, my suspicions were correct, but not entirely. We’re not allowed to rest in our biases, which makes this book an interesting read, one that I suspect could spark many a heated conversation.

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Overthrow by Caleb Crain starts out as a bit of a muddle, then becomes fascinating, and then reverts back to being a muddle. That makes it very difficult for me to say whether I enjoyed it or would recommend it.

The novel follows a group of activists who are part of the Occupy protests but have also formed their own group devoted to using ESP to detect government secrets and, perhaps, divulge them. Their motives and methods are part of the early muddiness of the book. Not all of the group’s members perceive their work in the same way, both in terms of whether the psychic angle is real and in terms of how willing they are to break the law. And, in the early chapters, their conversations often have undercurrents that are difficult to follow. It’s like stepping into the middle of something that’s way over my head. Luckily, Crain opens the novel with Matthew, a grad student who gets involved in the group because he’s attracted to Leif, who claims to be able to “read” others and therefore becomes the group’s central figure. Matthew is just outside enough to be a good vehicle for getting to know the group, but he’s also kind of bland and un-curious, which means he doesn’t do much to get answers about what’s going on.

So the early chapters felt a little too complex and the arguments about psychic phenomena and government surveillance were too hard to follow. But the book gets really interesting when the group starts to split up after some of the members are arrested because of illicit files supposedly found on their computers. At this point, the book becomes more about the interpersonal dynamics within the group than about their actual work, and this thread is fascinating. Each group member handles the situation differently, and their attitudes about the work and about each other become more evident. This is good stuff and I was very interested in seeing how the dynamics played out.

Toward the end, however, the book returns to the more elaborate conspiracy-laden plot, and I was back to trying to sort out threads I didn’t care much about. It felt like it was working so hard to make a big statement about technology and the government, but it was too convoluted to break through. But the story of relationships and activism and personal stakes was one worth digging into, and this would have been a great book if that had been the main focus, without all the “clever” distractions.

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It has taken me ages, but I finally got around to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah. It is every bit as good as Half of a Yellow Sun and for this American, much more potent in its subject matter.

The book is set in Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom and follows two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in their teens and then face years of separation as life takes them in different directions and to different continents.

Ifemelu’s story takes up a larger portion of the book. When the university in Nigeria closes down repeatedly for strikes, she goes to Philadelphia to study. Her first years are a struggle, as she struggles to find work and earn enough to pay her living expenses. Over time, however, she forms some connections that lead to work that lead to more connections and more work. Eventually, she starts a blog about race in America from an African perspective. Reading about her experiences finding an audience, getting sponsors, and monitoring comments felt like going into a time capsule. But the observations she makes felt fresh and interesting and often unexpected and challenging (and it would have been even more fresh in 2013).

The book falls down slightly when it comes to Obinze’s story. He ends up going to the UK, where he also struggles to find work and a place to fit in. But we don’t spend nearly as much time with him, even though there’s plenty of drama to be had in his story, both while he is in the UK and after he returns to Nigeria. I felt like Adichie wasn’t that interested in what was happening to him but included his sections to maintain the structure of following both halves of the young couple. Yet even the book’s title focuses on Ifemelu’s side of the experience. Obinze’s sections weren’t quite short enough to feel like little “catch-up” interludes and not long enough to carry the same weight as Ifemelu’s story. And, in the end, I wasn’t as interested in Obinze or in his relationship to Ifemelu as I was in Ifemelu’s journey from Africa to America and back again.

For me, Ifemelu was the heart of the book, and I loved reading about the way America changed her, in both good and bad ways, and about how she perceived the racism in America, as an outsider who must deal with the consequences of it every day.

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Trust Exercise

The relationships among the students at the performing arts high school at the center of Susan Choi’s novel are intense. And the theatre (always with the -re!) teacher seems to thrive on that intensity. For Sarah, the most intense relationship is the one she has with her classmate David. David and Sarah go from flirtation to sex to maybe an romance to nothing, all in a matter of months, that stretch from their freshman to sophomore years. Mr. Kingsley uses their feelings for each other to try to draw out their feelings on the stage. It’s more than a little bit creepy.

I think a lot of former theatre kids (like me) will recognize some elements of Trust Exercise, but I hope not all of it! The students and their teacher seem unable to form healthy connections, teenager to teenager and adult to teenager. Everything is all drama, all the time. To some extent, this seems appropriate in a book about artsy teenagers. An adult remarks to Sarah at one point that she is feeling more intensely at this point in her life than she ever will as an adult, and I get that. But the way the adults feed off the students’ feelings is unsettling, to put it mildly. Sarah seems aware of the problem, but she doesn’t ever articulate it. A lot of the book is about unsettling feelings never explicitly articulated.

And then, halfway through, the book takes a turn that puts the story of Sarah and David in a new light. I knew about this turn before reading — in fact, it’s what made me interested in the book. But if you’d rather not know about it, I suggest that you stop reading now.

When Karen, a minor character in Sarah’s story, takes over the narration, we learn that everything we’ve read so far is from a novel by Sarah. And Karen has some issues with the telling. However, like Sarah, she doesn’t articulate everything that’s wrong. We learn about some different relationships, learn which characters weren’t “real” and which were composites, and we learn that there was more going on than Sarah’s novel revealed.

The thing is, none of this is much of a surprise. The only surprise is that the book we’ve been reading is a book inside a book. But Karen’s reaction does raise questions about ownership of narratives and who can rightly tell which story — not new questions. But, in this case, there’s an added layer of adults who tried to manipulate students’ stories, to turn their relationship drama into fuel for onstage drama. And vice versa, to some extent. In both Sarah and Karen’s narratives, people are using each other again and again as objects in their own stories.

The way the book is structured makes Karen’s narrative, commenting on Sarah’s, feel more true. But I wonder if that’s fair. She adds some texture, certainly, but is she any more honest that Sarah was? There are secrets she’s holding back. And the final section of the book adds an additional layer to Karen’s story that made me even less certain about the truth of her story.

I’m still working out what I think about this book. I like the way Choi leaves a lot of threads dangling and questions unanswered, but I’m not clear when dangling threads convey sloppiness and when they are there to provide something to pick at. At this point, I’m inclined to want to keep picking at the book, and I look forward to following the discussion in the Tournament of Books.

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Anja and her boyfriend Louis live in a supposedly sustainable housing enclave in Berlin, all thanks to Anja’s employer, a corporation devoted to science and sustainability (or the appearance of it). Anja, Louis, and their friends spend their evenings partying at Berlin’s clubs and talking about the new innovations they’re working on, such as an app that will commodify personal connections in an obviously misguided attempt to make money less important.

In one way or another, money infiltrates every part of life in Elvia Wilk’s near-future novel, Oval. Corporate interests govern environmental preservation efforts, scientific advancements, artistic pursuits, housing options, and it’s beginning to creep into personal relationships and philanthropic efforts (as if it weren’t there already). As such, the novel serves as a smart satire of capitalism as its worst. When everything is a commodity, what is actually real? If everything we do is part of an exchange, whether of money, connections, or good feelings, can anything we do be treated as sincere? When the novel homes in on these ideas, it’s smart and funny and disturbing.

Unfortunately, the novel spends too much time, especially in its early chapters, on dull relationship angst and seemingly endless partying. It’s meant to set the scene, I suppose, but it’s just not interesting. But even worse, the back cover copy and the novel’s cover art and title put the spotlight on one tiny element of the story, blowing it all up way out of proportion to its place in the novel. It’s significant, but not to the degree we’re led to believe.

I know many people who don’t like to read cover copy or much of anything else, for fear of spoilers. And it is true that sometimes cover copy gives away too much plot. But I like looking at the cover copy because it helps me set my expectations about what I’m reading so I can read it more intelligently. Am I looking at a satire? An experimental structure? Something plot-driven? I read better when I have at least some sense of what’s ahead, and most of the time, cover copy doesn’t give away so much of the story that I know exactly what’s going to happen at every point. (I’m also, I have to admit, someone who doesn’t care much about spoilers, unless a book hinges on the element of surprise in some way.)

In the case of this novel, however, the cover details an event that doesn’t occur until more than halfway into the novel. And even then, it’s not the main focus of the story. When I read the cover copy, I was really intrigued by the development described, as it set up lots of questions about personal morality, motivations behind acts of goodness, and the possibility of making generosity compulsory. Those questions do come up in the plot, but they are just one thread in the overall picture of capitalism and markets that Wilk is painting. The picture that she paints is also intriguing, but I didn’t go into the book primed for those ideas, and so it took me a while to find my footing and get interested in what this book was actually doing, instead of what I was led to believe the book would be doing. It’s a shame, really, because I ended up not enjoying the book very much until I was well past the halfway point. Would I have liked it more had I been given a clearer picture of what Wilk was up to?

I’m afraid that this experience will not stop me from reading cover copy. I still find it useful most of the time. But I’m curious as to what others think? Has cover copy, cover art, and other material meant to pique your interest ended up ruining a book for you? I’m not thinking so much about spoilers (although that’s relevant), but about wrong impressions of what a book is doing. Have you ever felt so misled that you couldn’t enjoy the book in front of you?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Golden State

Imagine if each person was allowed the luxury of claiming their own truth, building a reality of their own in which they can live. Imagine the danger that would pose, how quickly those lies would metastasize, and the extraordinary threat that would pose to the world.

Alas, it’s easy for us to imagine a world where people can build their own reality out of lies, but in Golden State, Ben H. Winters chooses to imagine the opposite, a world where lies are outlawed. It comes with its own set of problems.

The book’s main character is Laszlo Ratesic, a longtime member of the Speculative Service, a sort of “lie detective” unit within a country known as the Golden State. Laszlo and his colleagues have the ability to sense lies and the authority to access the many recording devices and documents that are part of the fabric of their world in order to get at the truth. Those who are caught in a lie are subject to fines, jail, even exile. And people are easy to catch when every moment is on camera and when people are required to document all of their activities and maintain those documents for later reference if needed.

The novel is built around a case involving the death of a roofer who has fallen off a roof. When Laszlo and his new partner, Aysa Paige, are called to the scene, they notice some anomalies that are difficult to pin down but worth pursuing. But the pursuit leads them to bigger mysteries, involving those who are charged with administering Objective Truth in the Golden State.

It’s not hard to imagine how a world like the Golden State could go wrong. Making lies illegal doesn’t make them impossible, nor does making them easy to prove make them impossible to hide. As in our world, where lies are routinely winked at or shrugged off, the people with the power are in fact able to write their own truth. It’s just that in the Golden State, people are oblivious to that possibility. Gaslighting, which is all too easy in a world where we’re on the alert, becomes a cinch in a world where everyone is presumed honest (or easy to catch).

Winters structures the book as a straightforward thriller, with occasional interludes from an outside narrator who comments on the action. We learn about the world by watching Laszlo work his case. It’s an effective way of handling the world building, as a detective will of course have to visit lots of different parts of his world, while explaining what he’s doing to his newbie partner. The book lost a little steam for me as the plot got more labyrinthine, but, for the most part, I enjoyed myself all the way through. It’s a cleverly conceived world, and a well plotted book.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation was one of my favorite movies of last year, which made me curious about Jeff Vandermeer’s book series that inspired it. It has taken a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading the 2014 book series: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.

In a lot of ways reading Annihilation was a completely new experience, as the movie was only loosely based on the book. The setting and general outlines of the story are the same — a team of women scientists go to explore the mysterious region called Area X. The biologist on the team is the wife of man who was on a previous team, and he returned under strange circumstances. There’s a lighthouse. The psychologist who leads the team may have her own agenda. In both versions, the nature of Area X is never fully explained, and the ending leaves open a lot of possibilities. And that’s about it for the similarities. A lot of the specifics regarding what is happening in Area X and how the journey into the area unfolds are different. So I was continually kept off-kilter when reading, as is appropriate.

The second book, Authority, focuses on the Southern Reach, the organization that is in charge of investigating Area X. A man called only Control has taken over the Southern Reach, and he’s trying to get to the bottom of both Area X and the many failed expeditions into Area X. A lot of this book is about organizational politics, which is not nearly as exciting as a bizarre world where the rules of nature seem no longer to apply. Although I suppose any organization has its own set of rules that a new person has to figure out, and Control is trying to figure out the Southern Reach just as the scientists were trying to figure out Area X. I wanted proper weirdness, however, and it didn’t show up until past the halfway point of the book, when it got stranger and more exciting.

As for the final book, Acceptance, it’s all weird, all the time. This book takes place largely inside Area X, both  in the present and the past. We get to see into the lives of most of the major characters from the previous two books. In some cases, we’re following them through Area X as they try to understand the place. In other cases, we’re seeing that same area before the event that changed everything.

One of the things I liked about the series (and the movie) is its commitment to avoiding explanation. Lots of explanations are floated for why nature acts as it does in Area X. Indeed, even the nature of the anomalies isn’t always clear. Animals act strangely, people disappear, there are doubles, time operates differently. There are lots of things going on, and lots of possible reasons: It’s aliens, human interference, natural phenomena … something we’ll never know. At one point, the characters seem to converge on an explanation, but I didn’t find it convincing, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to.

Considering the three books together, I think the series may be less about the cataclysm that brought about Area X and more about people’s responses to it. That’s why we get a second book that devotes so much time to power plays and office schemes. Of course, that kind of thing will affect human response to any disaster, and it affects the Southern Reach. But this isn’t so simple as a parable about how dysfunctional organizations are a threat to humanity in the face of disaster. It takes a broader view to include other responses. Just waiting to see. Giving in. Exploring and understanding. Asking questions. Fighting. Whatever the threat, there’s no end to the possible reactions. And which one is best in this context is just as mysterious as any other question the books pose.

(Interestingly, I think the movie explores these same questions, just over a more compressed storyline.)

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Stories of Your Life and Others

The stories in this collection by Ted Chiang all deal with our perceptions of the world and how those perceptions may be off or incomplete or … just not the only way to see the world. Sometimes that’s a source of wonder, but it’s also almost always unsettling. If you’ve seen the movie The Arrival, which is based on “Story of Your Life,” you’ll know what I mean. In that story, the main character is a linguist who is asked to communicate with an alien species that has come to Earth. Learning their language then alters her to adopt, at least in part, their perception of the world. The result is lovely in a way, but also tragic.

Other stories deal with our notion of space and the construction of the world, the potential of our own minds, the truth (or not) of mathematics, the act of creating life, the nature of love, and the role of beauty in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Through the stories, we’re encouraged to take those ideas that many of us consider absolute and obvious and consider what it would be like if they were a little squishier. How would that knowledge affect us? What would it mean for the world?

I really loved this collection. I tend to like my short stories on the weird side, and although the form of these stories is pretty straightforward, the stories themselves are all strange. Sometimes you know straightaway what kind of though experiment Chiang is engaging in, and in other cases, it takes a while to unfold. Those latter stories, where it isn’t clear, tended to be my favorites, but I liked all these stories in the collection. There wasn’t a complete dud among them.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Great Believers

She opened the album at the beginning, and tried to slide the papers back into the empty slots. A man named Oscar, no one she remembered, had died in 1984. A clipping about Katsu Tatami from 1986. Here was the bulletin for Terrence Robinson, Nico’s Terrence. How odd—she must have put this bulletin together herself, but she didn’t remember it. Jonathan Bird. Dwight Sumner. There were so many of them, so impossibly many.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers puts readers in the middle of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and simultaneously lets readers see the long-term aftermath of being caught in the middle of such a tragedy. In alternating chapters, she takes readers from past to present, raising the stakes in both storylines as we learn more about the people involved. In the 1980s, Yale Tishman, who is helping establish an art museum at Northwestern, is watching one friend after another die. And in 2015, Fiona Marcus, the sister of one of Yale’s dead friends, is trying to find her daughter, believed lost to a cult and now fled to Paris.

On the surface, this sounds like so many recent literary novels. Alternating timelines. Doomed characters. Political resonance. A sense of history. But I found this to be a cut above most such novels, many of which are perfectly serviceable without entirely pulling me in. This pulled me in. First, and perhaps most obviously, Makkai puts names, faces, personalities, memories, and lives behind the grim statistics of the AIDS crisis. The early scenes of Yale, Fiona, and their friends in the 1980s show a robust and caring found family, people who stand up for each other and take care of each other, even when they don’t always like each other.

But, as important as that is, I wouldn’t want this book to be dismissed as simply a fictional chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Makkai pulls in stories from other eras to show that tragedy reverberates across generations. Yale spends a lot of his time with Nora, Fiona’s elderly aunt, who hopes to donate her art collection to Yale’s museum. The collection is made up of sketches and other works given to Nora by the artists she was friends with in Paris before and after World War I. This community of artists, much like the gay men of 1980s Chicago, saw one member after another die, first to war and then to PTSD. Nora is haunted by one man in particular, who never even got a chance to become known. The loss never leaves her.

In 2015, Fiona is similarly haunted by the many men she came to love, before and after her brother’s death. Fiona became sort of a community caregiver, visiting in the hospital, sometimes even taking on the power of attorney. As the book goes on and more of her memories are revealed, we learn before it even happens just how few survivors there will be.

For much of the book, this present-day narrative lacks the same sense of urgency as the 1980s story. This is one woman, chasing one daughter. Not a whole community of men dying one after another. But, especially toward the end of the book, it becomes evident how Fiona’s past brought her to the place she is, how that tragedy that began when she was still a teenager shaped her ability to mother her daughter.

There are at least two different points in the novel where characters talk about how nice it would be to have all the people one loves all together in one community, those who are dead and those who live. But I think the novel shows, in a not at all sappy or sentimental way, that the dead are always with us. For the characters in the book, they live in works of art. But they also live in how they shape us, how loving them shapes us, how losing them shapes us. The dead are never totally gone.

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