I understand the fuss about Jenny Offill now. Weather is an amazing work of fiction that captures so much of what I feel living in the world today: the dread, the anxiety, the helplessness in the face of climate change. And it’s not just the content that made me love this book. The way that it’s written, in impressionistic glimpses into the life of Lizzie, as she tries to be all things to all of the people in her life. Even though the tension in this book built with every page, I felt a strange sense of relief as I read it that I wasn’t the only one to feel all of those feelings whenever I read about the latest acts of the US government, the fires and disasters around the world, and the inertia that seems to prevent us from doing anything about all of this.
Lizzie has more of what I’ve had from time to time. I’m not sure what it is about librarians but, sometimes, people tell us things. People tell things that they should probably keep to themselves to Lizzie all the time. They confess things to her. Her former addict brother, especially, tells Lizzie all of the terrible things he thinks when he lets his anxiety spiral. When Lizzie takes on a part-time job answering questions for her former mentor, who runs a podcast and gives lectures about how to live when climate change irreparably disrupts how our world functions, it gets worse. In spite of all of the psychological pressure, Lizzie carries on with her ordinary life. She takes her son to school. She sustains her marriage to a sweet man with his own worries. Lizzie is a lot like the rest of us. We have to keep going on with our lives even when there are so many existential threats, within and without.
What’s absolutely brilliant about Weather is the way that Offill creates all of this from brief passages of dialogue, jokes that Lizzie shares with her husband, bits of emails from her other job, and encounters with library patrons. At first, I wasn’t sure how to piece things together. The text doesn’t give things away easily. When I stopped trying to put the pieces together and let it wash over me, I felt like I was starting to feel the panic of Lizzie, her brother, and her husband—a panic so like my own when I spend too much time on Twitter.
As the pages started to count down to the end, I started to wonder how all of this dread was going to be resolved. Good fiction has to give some kind of catharsis and resolution by the end. I wanted that catharsis because so much of the emotion kicked up by Weather is exactly what I and so many people feel about the world around us. If I could figure out how Offill’s characters deal with it, perhaps I could use it in my own life and share it around with others. The good news is that I think I found something to help me cope. The bad news is that it was an emotional realization that you can only get by reading Weather, preferable in one dose so that you get the full psychological impact.
The other thing I learned when I read this was what people mean when they say that they’ve read a book that made them feel seen. Being a person with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of fiction about the condition. I like to read about heroes who can put aside their worries and do the thing. There are plenty of these characters out there in literature for me to admire and learn from. But it’s hard for a writer to really capture what it feels like when your thoughts run away from you and think up the worst possible futures for you to fret about. Characters who can do the thing, instead of constantly worrying about all the ways that the thing can go wrong, are much more engaging to read about. Panic is not a fun experience, in life or in print. But, I feel grateful (a new reading emotion for me) for having read this book. I really do. Weather was perfect for me. And I suspect that it will be perfect for a lot of other readers out there, who feel like the world is spinning out of control.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who have anxiety or who have anxious people in their lives.