Heavy Weather

Weather by Jenny Offill is another “New Books shelf” gem. Browsing the new books at the library is always fun because you never know what you’ll come across. The trick is to look at everything not just your usual call numbers. Oh and you can do this virtually – our county library site has a ‘Recently Ordered’ link where you can place holds on books, movies, whatever, before they’re even in the building. Check your library for something similar or suggest it!

Weather is a paperback-sized hard cover book and as I stood there flipping through it I was immediately drawn in. It’s written in a series of short paragraphs, thoughts, questions and quotes, that come together to tell a story in six parts.

Lizzie, the narrator, is a wife, mother, loyal sister, flirt and budding prepper (as in doomsday). She lives in Brooklyn and works at a university library as a “feral librarian,” labeled as such because a professor got her the job without the usual qualifications. Lizzie’s an underachiever but is convinced to work a second job as an assistant to Sylvia, her former academic mentor and climate change alarm-sounder. Lizzie helps her answer questions from the public via email.

I laugh out loud so many times while reading Weather, but it’s not a comic novel. Or is it? Offill pens wry, observant humor, capturing the strange moments we all experience and have no choice but to shake our heads and laugh.

Lizzie’s work in the library has her answering questions from students, professors and other patrons. One moment that cracked me up was when a student brings her a smoothie, something green and healthy, and they chat for a minute about how the student’s phone was stolen and so she decided to use an old one instead of getting something new. She’s going at a slower pace now, she tells Lizzie, she has more time to think. Lizzie is charmed up until the point the student pulls out her old phone and it’s the same model as Lizzie’s, just two years old.

“Wait,” she says, “Were you talking about seconds? When you said you were so out of step and living slowly, did you mean by seconds? She considers this. “Yeah,” she says, “seconds probably.”

The whole novel is like this: deadpan and matter-of-fact. It reminds me of a graphic novel / memoir called Good Talk. They both have similar elements: young married couple with a curious young son, NYC life, apprehension, existential questions. So many questions!

Lizzie has her library and assistant roles, but she is also a caretaker of sorts to her brother. He’s recovering from addiction, searching for something as well, and he takes up a lot of her time and mental energy. Lizzie navigates her complicated life the best she can, with a smart, tart charm.

Weather is hard to classify or explain but I liked it and recommend it. And not just because I work at my alma mater as an executive assistant and wish I could be a feral librarian. There’s the story / snapshot of a period of time in Lizzie’s life, but the structure of Weather, the pondering and questioning turn this into something else. I definitely want to read more of Offill.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of these types of novels: existential, questioning, searching for answers, and reacting to the rise of authoritarianism and the current slow-motion climate disaster. Sad but here we are. At least we have art and literature to help us make sense, laugh and see us through.

p.s. I reviewed Good Talk last fall and it was a New Book find, too! Review here https://bookthrasher.com/2020/10/14/can-we-talk/

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