Weather – Jenny Offill

A weird and dreamy book, that feels a bit like passing through a cloud. It is quite a short one and it reads like a dream. Taking us on a hazy trip through our polarized world.

I received it in one of the subscription boxes, so didn’t know anything about the author or the book before diving in. For the blurb at the back does nothing to prepare you for it. It merely states the dry summary of the plot, but cannot make you feel the eerie atmosphere of this book (this review will probably fail in a similar way).

Lizzie Benson tells us her story in the first person. She is a librarian and a very perceptive one at that. She notices things about people and has a certain kind of sensitivity that makes people open up to her. Even if she really does not want that. She gets saddled with other people’s problems, as if she didn’t have enough of her own, with her busy husband Bill, young son Eli in a demanding program for gifted children, and psychologically unstable brother Henry. 

One day an old acquaintance of hers, Sylvia, now a successful climate podcast host, asks Lizzie if she’d like to help her answer all the emails coming from listeners, for a fee of course. Lizzie agrees, only to be pulled into yet another form of supporting people. This time very much outside of her safe home-library bubble, in the world that is at war about technology and climate.

Lizzie navigates all this, including her brother’s frequent breakdowns, with a kind of eerie distance. She experiences things, reacts to them and they make her think. But it is as if nothing can upset her too much. Or that is the voice we hear. She does ask herself many questions though. She is thinking if she is doing the right thing, wondering if she is letting anyone down, considering if she should be preparing for the apocalypse. 

Other people’s emotions and stories bombard her like a hail of stones, and she stands in the middle of it, trying to catch them, but also a bit baffled, as to what this uproar is about. Lizzie, we get to know if a very reactive person. At times it felt as if she would do nothing if it wasn’t for the needs of other people. She seems the polar opposite of egocentric, she only thinks of her actions in the context of other people’s needs, current or future. And maybe this is what builds this weird sense of distance and disengagement.

Or maybe it is Lizzie’s defense mechanism, not to get swept away in the craziness of the world around her. Standing her ground, where others run around flailing, trying to stop the unstoppable and fighting the fights they can’t win, causing themselves lots of harm in the process. 

It is a very odd book, one that makes us join Lizzie in her hazy world, but at the same time forces us to take a step back from all our running around. We join Lizzie’s detached position and suddenly things look very different from that perspective. Yes, the climate crisis is real and we have to do something about it, but just shouting will not solve the situation. Yes, the world is polarized, and at the same time connected in a way it’s never been before, but maybe it would be better to think before we yell at someone else. In the middle of all this, we can see Lizzie as the last sane one, or as the deer caught in the headlights, completely paralyzed by the onslaught of the world’s problems.

Another thing that the book made me think about is the cost of all this activity. We are all trying to do the right thing about everything the climate, the politics, the society. But how often do we think of those closest to us and how it impacts them. How fighting the larger cause often damages the things close to home. How the energy spent on arguing with online trolls, is the energy we’re not spending caring about a family member who may be down, or ourselves for that matter. I’m not a fan of capitalists bon-mots, but one that seems to hold is ‘there is no such thing as free lunch’ and maybe it holds because it is a rephrasing of the third law of motion: for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. Everything we do has consequences, but what I love about our lives is that we have a choice of what we’ll do. 

This book moved me more on the intellectual than emotional level. It is weird how it creates this dreamy atmosphere, that makes you stop to think. The sparse prose certainly helps as well, it seems as if not a word is wasted here.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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