Five young people set up an idealistic living experiment in upstate New York in this tantalizingly mysterious second novel by the author of Dead Letters (2017).
Mack, the narrator, has good reason for heading off the grid with four attractive semistrangers. A former Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, she has been thrown out of her program after a scandal involving a reality TV show, and her middle-class parents are getting tired of her bumming around their house in Ithaca. So when she meets wealthy Louisa while helping to cater a party for a local land trust and Louisa introduces her to charming Beau, sweet Chloe, and enthusiastic Jack, Mack jumps on the chance to join them in setting up a homestead on an abandoned farm owned by Louisa's family. Despite the fact that it's winter, and regardless of the lack of winter plumbing, they eagerly move in to their respective cabins on the farm and start making plans for planting crops and raising chickens and regularly swapping beds. Their lives become complicated as they interact with the residents of the more organized and far more radical commune next door, led by the charismatic Matthew, who spends his time journeying among a network of collectives he has established. Mack—observant, curious, and apt to leap to unwarranted conclusions—makes a likable and understandably unreliable narrator. While the characters are not as well-differentiated as they might be, the setting, traced through a year of seasons, is richly realized, with believable details about the difficulties of farming with little resources and less knowledge. Dolan-Leach grounds the contemporary story in references to earlier American attempts to “go to the woods” by Thoreau and the many founders of intentional communities in the area in which this one is located, though her attempt to integrate passages from the diary of a fictional resident of one such community into the novel fizzles out.
Equal parts slow-burning thriller and intelligent analysis of the pros and cons of intentional communities, the novel will appeal to those who would rather read about such endeavors from a safe distance than be immersed in their messy reality.