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Book Review | Weather by Jenny Offill

From the publisher: Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years, she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization.

As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience—but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks… And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in—funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

I read Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather, for the first time in one sitting last winter. The novel is incantatory, and I felt totally under its spell. Like Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, which directly preceded this one, Weather is told in a weave of short narrative segments that, delicately arranged, create the weather of the novel itself.

Weather is nearly present-day, and the political climate present throughout the book only just predates the one we’re living now. Lizzie, Weather’s protagonist and narrator, works in a library at the university that houses the graduate program she dropped out of. One of her mentors asks her to field questions in the inbox of her doomy climate change podcast: at the same time Lizzie raises her son, helps her brother through his drug addiction, and struggles in her marriage.

Lizzie wonders, receiving the questions of doomsday preppers across political backgrounds for the podcast, how to answer the questions of strangers when it seems there are multiple truths to everything.

One inbox question reads, “What is the difference between a disaster and an emergency?” Somewhere in this question, Weather locates itself. Is this the tornado warning or the tornado watch? When everything feels alarming, when do we sound the alarm? Offill doesn’t answer the questions the book poses, necessarily, but elaborates on the questions themselves as deep as they go. If I had to describe Offill’s narrative style, I’d say reading her work feels like slowly pulling threads apart from a large string and trying to put the string back together.

If you need to sit and stare at what you might be thinking already, yet can’t sort through, this book is one to pick up. (At the risk of bringing up the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s incredible to me that this book came out before the pandemic began.) Offill distills questions I didn’t know I had—putting into words things that had only before been felt, unsaid. The segmented quality of the book lets readers mull over multiple things at once, spinning many plates in the air and letting none of them topple, even though we feel they could at any second.

Weather is available for checkout from the Galesburg Public Library.