A pandemic, a catastrophic snowstorm, a massive power outage and social breakdown play out in the microcosm of a Columbus, Ohio, suburb.
Finally, the other viral shoe has dropped: an influenza strain that, like the 1918 flu, combines human, avian and porcine antigens to deadly effect. H5N1, which first manifests in mass die-offs of migrating fowl, is so virulent that it threatens to wipe out 50 percent of humanity. University research veterinarian Peter Brooks and his fetching Egyptian grad assistant Shazia are among the scientists playing a familiar losing game of vaccine catch-up when Ohio is quarantined and everyone is ordered to go into isolation at home with their families. But Peter lives apart from wife Ann and their two daughters; the marriage never recovered from their infant son’s unexplained crib death a decade earlier. Just after Thanksgiving, a blizzard strikes, followed by blackout. Fighting supermarket crowds, Ann hoards enough food to last weeks. Peter and Shazia move in, much to Ann’s discomfiture, although she never confronts Peter about his suspected affair, not even when Shazia starts showing signs of pregnancy. At first it seems their area will be spared. Then a neighbor’s child dies. Information filters through: The hospital is overloaded, the morgue has shut down and the local ice rink is being used to store bodies. The social fabric is shredding. Quarantine and paranoia preclude cooperation outside family boundaries, and there’s no Internet or cell-phone service. (Tellingly, the landline is the last to fail.) Ann’s best friend Libby, last seen trying to eject husband Smith from her SUV, shows up weeks later on the Brooks’ doorstep, coughing ominously and begging the family to take her six-month-old baby. Newcomer Buckley pulls many punches, downplaying in particular the chaos that could ensue following a total infrastructure collapse, and sets up the novel’s surprise final twists by deliberately misleading the reader.
Mawkish prose and blatantly contrived plot developments make this a disappointing debut.