To be clear, I can’t think of any time I would have enjoyed reading this book. But right now, with so many dumpster fires working together to start a worldwide conflagration, it was especially maddening. When a family friend (backed up by my mother, who had also read it) passed this book on with an evilly gleeful “you’re going to hate this, but it will make a fun review!”, I knew I was in for some misogynistic nonsense. And I definitely got that, but it came with an unexpected heaping helping of guilt!
Jean was some kind of neuro-linguistic scientist at the top of her field when the world suddenly took a huge step backwards. Now, women are forced to wear counters on their wrists. If they speak more than 100 words a day, they get shocked. This counts for teeny babies, the president’s wife, everybody. The Pure movement has taken over, and it’s like Mike Pence and Fred Phelps got together and filled out a wish list. Any hint of LGBTQ+ness is outlawed. Women who commit adultery go to work camps (the men are fine, obviously). Women aren’t allowed their own bank accounts or cell phones. In schools (where girls learn home ec and boys learn everything else), girl students are awarded prizes for speaking the fewest words a day.
Then, the president’s brother is struck with aphasia (an accident? a stroke? don’t remember) and the Powers That Be show up at Jean’s door, offering to take her counter off (and her daughter’s) if she’ll help fix him. She’s torn between wanting to let the bastard suffer and die, or doing everything she can to help her small daughter get her counter off, even for a little while. Of course she ends up doing it, and is back in the lab with her old team – another woman who’s freed from her counter for the duration, and her old affair partner. Swell.
From there, it all unfolds pretty predictably. Lab montages, helpless rage, a terrible boss who takes credit for their work, and a horrifying conspiracy. However, a lot of the little side plots bothered me even more than the big obvious awfulness. Jean’s husband, Patrick, is a good guy, but he still goes along with everything, which made me fume. But what else could he have done? If he resisted and got himself locked up, Jean and her four kids would’ve been even more screwed. But could you stay married to the man who stood aside as the Pure goons came into your home and put electric bracelets on you and your daughter? Would you be able to look your husband in the eye as your teenage son got led more and more astray? And there are lots of flashbacks to Jean’s old college roommate Jackie, who protested and wrote letters and fought the Man, and who Jean always thought was overreacting. So then I worried about my principles. I donate regularly to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood, and I speak up in my own very small ways, but I don’t march or do anything impactful. I am definitely more of a Jean than a Jackie. How complicit are we all in today’s terribleness? It’s an icky feeling.
And then, while I was already feeling cross and icky about the whole thing, it just abruptly ended. I knew it would have at least an okay ending, because I trust my mother wouldn’t do that to me, but it wrapped up VERY quickly. Jean sneaks some brain serum out of the lab and there’s a plot to use it to overthrow the bad guys, but it all happens off-screen (off-page?) and then things go back to normal and that’s that. Which I suppose is good, but I wanted VENGEANCE. I wanted to combine this book with Naomi Alderman’s The Power, and the women to FRY those monsters. Apparently this was expanded from a short story, so that might explain some of the lack of detail, but I wanted more. I mean, not more in general…I wanted less misogyny and “too close to home” scariness, and more Atomic Blonde/Buffy level pummeling and ripping off of male skin.
Mom, I’m returning all your Christmas presents.