When I read the description of this book, I was intrigued. I love good dystopian or apocalyptic fiction, and while I enjoy the more action-packed stuff, I’m always intrigued by books in the genre that take a more character-centered approach. This book was nothing like I expected. Instead, it’s what I tend to think of as a textbook MFA-style book: so focused on character that it doesn’t notice at all when it’s being plodding and creating a laborious read for its audience. Some spoilers to follow.
While I do enjoy literary fiction, I’m starting to notice a commonality among works written by MFA graduates. There’s a certain distance and detachment to some literary works that I find very off-putting, if not a smug sense of the book’s genius that comes through in the author’s tone. I didn’t necessarily think that was the case here, but many times I felt like this book was screaming at me, “Behold the exquisite soul-wrenching-ness with which I depict grief! Note how futile the human condition, and how perfectly I have captured it!” It’s not that I necessarily think the author was self-satisfied about this book, but more that it felt like something she’d written for her class rather than something she’d written in an attempt to connect her characters with potential readers. Literature like this feels like something I’m supposed to look at and admire, but with which I’m not bound to feel much attachment, nor am I likely to remember it in the future.
Take Dylan, for example. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t stand dragging myself through his passages. He may be the biggest literary sadsack I’ve ever read about, and that’s saying something, considering that I’ve read plenty of classic works rife with self-pitying male characters. I get that he’s upset that both his mother and his grandmother had died, but sometimes I wanted to give him a good shake and scream, “Pull yourself together, man!” There’s a difference between grieving and moping, and I was definitely getting more of a moping vibe from Dylan. I found him so tedious that I couldn’t even sympathize with the fact that he had to give up his entire way of life and move to what was essentially a foreign land for him. Intellectually I know this, but from a sympathetic perspective, I really couldn’t care less. Dylan was a bore to me, plain and simple.
I also was displeased with the fact that the book’s setting, which is given a tremendous amount of space in the description, was pretty much incidental. Oh, sure, it comes up, and the author repeatedly inserts passages in which dire warnings about the worsening weather conditions are inserted. And by inserted, I do mean inserted. Rarely do the characters ever really discuss them in any meaningful way. Instead, the author relies on newscasters to do it, which created further distance for me. I wanted to see the characters struggle with their environment, but there isn’t much of this. It’s mentioned from time to time, but the book is far more focused on the melodrama, particularly between Dylan, Stella’s mother (seriously, she makes so little impression on me that I’ve already forgotten her name), and Alistair (who sounds like a supreme jerkwad). You know what? I don’t care about that melodrama. I came to this novel because I was expecting to read about characters struggling with their changing environment, and instead people click on the TV, watch the weather report, shrug, turn it off, and then go on the internet. It was a little hard for me to feel like their circumstances were all that pressing when I can only recall two moments when their circumstances were obviously pressing. One is at the abysmal ending, and the other happens to Stella but lacks much tension because her mother and Dylan are kind of worked up about it but then end up making out for a while. What?
The only saving grace of this book for me was Stella. I really wish the entire weather subplot and Dylan’s point of view had been eliminated. I think the book would have been much better for it. I get that everyday life has to go on even during times of disaster, but the real life problems Stella was facing were infinitely more interesting to me than the flimsy weather issue. Stella was the only character with whom I sympathized, and I found her passages harrowing and compelling. And even though I can’t remember her mother’s name, I appreciated the relationship between the two and the fact that her mother became something of a tiger when she really needed to go to bat for Stella. I also only liked Dylan when he was being understanding and sympathetic of Stella’s situation, even if he used that as a means of asserting his superior manhood against Alistair. Poor Stella. She’s the only character with any real life in this book (except for maybe Barnacle, but he’s only a minor character whose arc resolution is rather anti-climactic, and felt as if it existed just to shine a bright spotlight on how very horrible the situation was), and it’s a shame she has to contend with all the monotonous clutter that exists whenever the book isn’t written from her point of view.
The ending was just plain terrible to me, and pretty much a prerequisite for this type of literature, which is rather unrelentingly bleak. Call me naive, but I prefer stories that manage to find some glimmer of hope even in the midst of truly horrible circumstances. Instead, this book seemed determined to beat me over the head with its bleakness. I suppose it succeeded, since it left me numb in the end.