Reviewed by Jeanne
I’d had this book recommended to me several times but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. When I ended up with a Book Bingo square requiring me to read a science fiction book, I gave in and picked it up.
While this is indeed a beautifully written, thought provoking book, populated with complex and interesting characters, it is set in the aftermath of a global pandemic which has wiped out most of the human population. That’s not the most comfortable read these days, and I found myself chilled reading the litany of things that ended, things that we have experienced (end of waving lights at concerts, end of swimming in community pools, end of going to movies) and things we haven’t and hopefully won’t: no electricity, communication, mail, antibiotics, and vaccines. You can no longer take for granted that a cut won’t be fatal, Mandel tells us, or that you’ll ever see loved ones again in this life.
As I said, not an easy read these days.
On the other hand, the characters pull you along as does Mandel’s meticulous interweaving of lives. The book opens with a young man named Jeevan and his girlfriend attending a Shakespeare play. Arthur Leander, a fading movie star, has the lead role of Lear when he suffers a fatal heart attack on stage. Jeevan has been training as a paramedic, and he leaps on stage to try to help. A frightened child actress cries, bewildered. As the crowd disperses, Jeevan learns from a friend who works in an ER that a terrifying epidemic has come to town via a passenger from an airplane: victims become ill and die within 48 hours and the virus is spreading like wildfire. Jeevan goes to a store and begins buying supplies—including toilet paper, I must add.
Twenty years later, a woman is part of a traveling artistic troop that moves from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare plays and music. She’s Kirsten, the child from the stage, and Arthur’s death was a pivotal moment in her life. She carries two comic books that Arthur gave her, strange books that no one else has ever heard of, and she searches everywhere they go to try to uncover more information.
The story flashes back and forth in time, introducing us to the young Arthur and to his wives—there will be three in all—and how his life and their relationships have influenced the future. It’s a tribute to Mandel’s writing ability that Arthur becomes a fully developed character, not a caricature of a shallow, philandering Hollywood actor. He makes some bad choices, but he is basically a decent fellow. His friend Clark thinks that the one word always associated with him is “kind.”
And in a way, that seems to be the heart of the story. Most of the characters, at least the ones we follow, are kind, decent people. They are sometimes forced to do terrible things but they act for the good of friends and family, not just selfishness. They give me hope for humanity.
Mandel glosses over the first years after the pandemic. Most of the characters are too traumatized by what they have seen, and possibly done, that they’ve wiped it from their minds. They’re focused on the now and a bit on the future.
Part of the fun for me was figuring out how the people we meet in the pre-epidemic times fit into the post-pandemic world. Sometimes it’s an action that lives on; sometimes it’s the person him or herself. I found myself guessing where things came from or if something would turn up again. I was right sometimes and wrong sometimes, but I was always entertained.
I think it comes down to the fact that, ultimately, this is a hopeful book. Hopeful that good people prevail, hopeful that life can continue, hopeful that art can sustain, just as it has through the centuries. Several times it is pointed out that Shakespeare wrote during a time of plague; that people need poetry, drama, music, and visual art, even in the direst of times.
I’m glad I read this book.