Reviewed by:  Jane Tompkins

I thought I’d offer a New Year’s round-up of recently published novels I’ve enjoyed. Once There Were Wolves was an Andes Book Group selection; the rest I picked up hither and yon.

Once There Were Wolves

In Once There Were Wolves the protagonist has a special faculty. She can feel what other people and animals are feeling. The leader of a mission to re-wild the Scottish Highlands by releasing wolves into the environment, she’s an empath on steroids. This faculty allows her to identify with the experience of the wolves her team is managing, to understand a wolf who won’t leave the enclosure because she’s frightened, as well as the one who takes over the territory fearlessly. Her sensitivity extends to humans as well.

The high value the story places on the (supposedly) feminine quality of receptivity is striking. Instead of domination and control, openness and receptivity to conditions as they arise are the methods required for the successful completion of the project—and, it is implied, for the successful conduct of a relationship. Intuition is just as important as analysis, psychic sensitivity just as vital as pre-existing information. Eventually the narrative’s human interactions get unnecessarily violent and complicated, but the importance of the heroine’s highly evolved psyche in restoring balance to the environment contrasts interestingly with ecological novels that address only the political and technical aspects of the challenge.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow 

Leaving nature, the senses, and the animal world behind, Gabriella Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow introduces us to the virtual world of video games, focusing specifically on the process of their creation. It begins in a hospital in Los Angeles where the female protagonist, Sadie Green, an eleven-year-old volunteer, visits a boy her age named Sam Masur, a patient with a traumatic foot injury who hasn’t spoken since it happened. At their first meeting, he starts to talk. It turns out both are addicted to playing video games. This forms the basis for a friendship which, over time, turns into a partnership: Together they produce new, more complex games, games that are more satisfying to play than those already in existence; eventually they found a successful game-producing company that fosters new talent.

When Sadie falls in love with one of her professors, a famous game inventor, her relationship to Sam is silently altered and their paths diverge, but nothing in either of their lives can compare to the excitement and success they have achieved through their collaboration. In the end, the novel becomes a meditation on the process of creation as a collaborative enterprise, a unique conjunction of talents and skills in which each person functions as the spark that ignites the other to greater heights of inventiveness and accomplishment. Zevin’s writing is fluid and absorbs the reader completely, moving forward seamlessly and without apparent effort. Some lightness from the fantasy worlds her characters create infuses the narrative, lending it a touch of playfulness and elasticity. The story is subtle, nuanced, and enlightening.       

Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garbus combines the elements of personal relationship and creative work in an entirely different way. Set in the 50s and 60s, it’s about a well-trained woman chemist who, professionally, can’t get to square one. Smart, knowledgeable, creative, and hard-driving, forthright and extremely no-nonsense, she’s disliked by the director of the lab where she has a low-level job. Enter Cupid. She and the distinguished older scientist (head-in-the-clouds, not very good-looking), who gives the institute where they work its reputation, fall in love. They work together on important research. She’s in heaven. A child is conceived. One night he’s killed in a car accident, she’s fired from her job (unmarried, pregnant), and to support herself accepts a gig as chef on an afternoon TV show. Her sheer intelligence, the energy and force of her personality, and the power of her confidence in herself galvanize millions of women into taking control of their lives. Am I kidding? No. The author makes it believable. A fiery and effective manifesto against sex discrimination, the book couldn’t be more relevant. For me it was inspirational.

Our Missing Hearts

In Our Missing Hearts Celeste Ng imagines the human tragedies that follow when a rightwing conspiracy takes over the United States. The story centers on the secret taking of children from parents whose politics are suspect—in most cases the children are never recovered. The account of how people are propagandized into conforming with this oppressive regime is absolutely convincing. And the way in which some of the characters attempt to undermine the regime are heartbreaking. But more affecting, to me, than the novel’s politically motivated plot—though I don’t disagree with its intentions—is the beauty of the author’s prose. A sample sentence:

“How porous the boundary was between him and the world, as if everything  flowed through him like water through a net.”

I kept stopping to enjoy the sensuousness, delicacy, and penetration of descriptions like these that tug gently against the current of the novel’s overriding purpose. Ng is a writer of enormous talents. This novel, which is a satisfying read, gave me an appetite for more. ~