I wanted to like this book, but so much of it was a slog. It’s about a pandemic, coincidentally taking place over the fall and early winter of 2021, and yet unfolding at a slightly different rate than the one that hit us all in 2019. Nawaz can’t be blamed for getting some of the mundane aspects of quarantine wrong, although much of her understanding of how cities, states and countries respond with various measures that may or may not be effective bares a certain ironic weight today.
With diverging plotlines that intersect through different timelines in character’s lives, it became a chore to try and keep track of who knew who when, how and why. Many of the characters initially introduced don’t interact for years, or never again, and so the sort of intrinsic promise to the audience that maybe we’ll see how these people end up back together goes unfulfilled. Many of the disperate plot threads aren’t wrapped up so much as dropped. The end is deeply unsatisfying because it just stops, mid-pandemic, as we learn a few characters have died, a few will carry on, and the worst is probably yet to come.
Long stretches are spent in the past- one character lives on a boat for most of her childhood, with a pre-Y2K family worried over how the countdown to 2000 could affect onboard navigation. We think that maybe we’ll see her return to a boat someday, so we get some sort of pay off for her sea-faring knowledge and experience, but nothing materializes. Instead, a different pair of characters end up at sea, and while we hope that our earlier experience reading about boat life will make sense in this new context, very little is given to add resonance to the second boat experience, this time taking place over a pandemic.
It’s a weird book to write about because it is at once something where I wish there was more and less. I wish there was a tighter focus on a few of the really well established characters, like maybe 3, and less given to the attempted sprawling narrative that intersperses 8 different perspectives and experiences across time and space. The characters who are established as slightly more primary do resonate, like Elliott, an NYC cop and son of a pair of intellectuals, with a sister recovering from life in a cult and a nephew he loves to pieces. These siblings were perhaps the most interesting elements of the book, and the most sympathetic and relatable. Many of the secondary and tertiary characters don’t do much to earn the pages upon pages of perspective added to their experiences, and just seem like filler.
It will be interesting to read the post Covid-19 books about pandemics, as my own experience living through one has now changed how I read and react to characters living through fictional ones. Nawaz is right on the precipice here, having written her book before the pandemic and having it published during it. Despite her ample research and efforts, it’s just shy of believable and just a bit off from entertaining.