Jenny Offill has long been interested in the distinctions people make between what is big and important and what is trivial. In 2020, nothing captures this false dichotomy—of being of both monumental importance and the subject of the most inconsequential small talk—as the weather. In her tidy third novel, Offill puts these two sides of the conversation on the same plane, cleverly capturing the ways in which climate change and concurrent political strife take up space in our minds right alongside each day’s forecast.
The reader is thrust into the mental meanderings of Lizzie, a librarian at a university that she once attended. Lizzie reads as an NPR-listening, socially aware yet overburdened woman. She’s ever-conscious of the effects her actions have on those around her and carefully tends to the squeakiest wheels in her life.
Early on in this narrative, which is conversational yet concise, Lizzie takes on a side job: answering email for her former mentor, an expert on climate change, who has a popular and divisive podcast called “Hell and High Water.” The listeners run the gamut of political persuasion, there are doomsday preppers, rightwing zealots, and do-gooder liberals, one of whom asks: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?
These interruptions in the narrative, which appear alongside Lizzie’s increasingly kooky answers, are often darkly funny, allowing the reader to reflect on both the horror and the inanity of our climate crisis. Lizzie shares a list of prepper acronyms, “GOOD=Get out of Dodge” and “YOYO=You’re On Your Own.” The joke may be on me: a Google search revealed the acronyms as real.
Lizzie truly seems troubled by her increasing knowledge of the climate catastrophe, but I found it easier to get sucked into her interpersonal drama. Her brother, who has a substance abuse problem, uses her as a constant crutch; his neediness only increases once he has a child. These family dynamics increasingly exasperate her husband, who takes their son on a road trip, leaving Lizzie at home. While he’s away, she becomes romantically interested in a library patron. It’s unclear whether Offill was trying to make the reader see the ways in which our relative comfort and privilege allows us to ignore the realities of climate change. What is the average person expected to do when the bills still need to get paid and our children still need to be fed?
About halfway through the book, a Trump stand-in is about to be elected president, although Offill never names him. Afterwards, there is increasing tension, in the nation as a whole, and for Lizzie personally. The way she introduces this shift, right before the third section, is quietly stunning. She stops into her local bodega on the way home, and notices the proprietor has placed a small American flag beside a postcard of the Hindu deity Ganesh. “Even if this man wins, he will not stay,” he tells her. “Now he has money, planes, beautiful things. He is a bird. Why be a bird in a cage?” How to maintain optimism appears a few times throughout the book, always posed as a question to Sylvia, Lizzie’s mentor. It’s never earnestly answered, although perhaps the bodega owner puts it best, pointing out the temporariness and temporality of all things—presidents, the weather, and even our time on Earth.
Jenny Offill will read from “Weather” at Women and Children First on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, 7 PM.
By Jenny Offill
Knopf, 224 pages