Verdict: My kind of catnip.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published by Knopf, 2020
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.
This is a very specific kind of navel-gazy book that works really well for me but might prove frustrating or even kind of empty for other readers. This is the kind of novel Sarah Manguso would write and I loved it.
The blurb makes this sound like a plot heavy book but it is very much the opposite. Offill has edited her book down to sparse scenes, short musings, and witty sentences. Much of the action happens off-page and only the ramifications are felt. I thought the easily readable prose actually hides how very thought-provoking this book is, and the brief scenes hide the emotional leg work she does with them. I found the sibling relationship at the heart of the novel impeccably drawn and highly emotional. People have talked about the anxiety-inducing spiral with regards to climate change the narrator is involved in, but I actually found the commentary on post partum depression a lot more difficult to read, for obvious reasons I guess. I thought the narrator’s voice imparted so much warmth towards her brother that I felt her helplessness in this situation acutely.
Content warning: Climate change, (emotional) cheating, post partum depression
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
- Weather by Jenny Offill
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel