This was an interesting story that I appreciated far more than I enjoyed.
Candace Chen is a 20-something in middle-management at a Manhattan publishing company, in the specialty Bible division. She is good at her job, but she doesn’t really like much about it. It’s a job, it pays the bills. But she has no passion for it. But Candace, like many of her generation, doesn’t really know what it is that she actually does have passion for. She used to like photography, and had a blog for a while, but she doesn’t think she was all that good at it, and quickly lets her blog fade away. That’s much easier than trying. She has a boyfriend, but doesn’t seem all that passionate about him. She has many acquaintances but not really any friends, and she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s just drifting through her 20s.
And then, Shen Fever hits.
Starting in China, the fever is caused by something-something-spores. And once you get it, there is no cure. The fever causes you to repeat comforting, yet mundane and repetitive, actions over and over and over, until your malnourished body just stops working. This is more or less a zombie story, but the zombies don’t want to eat your brains. They want to do everyday tasks. Some fold laundry. Some set and clear the table. Some try on dresses. And some drive cabs aimlessly around Manhattan.
The story flips back and forth, telling us about Candace’s life up until the fever, and then during the aftermath. Candace moved to Utah from rural China when she was six (her parents moved over two years earlier, creating a divide between her and her mother that they could never close), went to college, moved to New York, and never really did anything at all.
And yet. These scenes describing Candace’s life were amazing. I always wanted to know more about her life “before”. Why did she always wear her mother’s old dresses? Did she even love Jonathan at all? What did she love? I have no idea. I found Candace absolutely frustrating but 100% real.
When the fever hits, Candace keeps going to work every day, even when the subways and busses stop service. Because really, what else is she going to do? She keeps dressing up, and making the trip from Brooklyn to Mid-Town, day after day, seeing fewer and fewer people as time goes on. Finally, she just moves in to the office, using her boss’ coveted chaise sofa as the focal point of her new home. She goes back to taking pictures, letting the rest of the dwindling world see what’s happening to New York (it seems that the fever hasn’t spread to some colder climates like Iceland and Scandanavia).
I was less interested in the dystopian side of the story. Fever hits, population dwindles, survivors find each other. But quietly. There’s no Randall Flagg here, forcing people to choose good versus evil. But there are choices for Candace to make, whether or not to stay with a group that is together by happenstance – not by choice – or to go on her own and try to survive alone, like she had been doing even when she was surrounded by people back in New York.
Of course, Candace also has a secret, one that makes her questioning every move she makes in this new world. But not really questioning enough to do something. I’ll admit, I was totally wrong about what Candace’s secret might be at first (SPOILER: I was convinced that Candace already had the fever from one of her trips to China for work, and her regular, daily ennui was no different than the victims of the fever. Oh well.), and (MORE SPOILERS) I’m glad that we didn’t really get any closure about what might happen to Candace and Luna in the future, somewhere in Chicago.
The story was filled with lovely details, like her mother’s obsession with Clinique skin care even in the last stages of her Alzheimer’s, and ugly realities, like the daily actions of Bob’s crew of survivors who think they are doing what they have to do to survive.
My main quibble with this book is that it is being touted as a satirical black comedy. Sure, some parts were satire, but nothing here made me laugh or really even smile. Even the most ridiculous situations were still a little bit more sad than amusing, at least to me.