A troubled dentist pulls up stakes and moves herself and her two children to Alaska.
Josie, like the heroes of prior Eggers novels A Hologram for the King (2012) and The Circle (2013), is an archetypal figure, representative of how modern living corrodes our psyches. Josie has split from the slacker father of her two children, Ana and Paul; she’s tormented by having encouraged a patient to sign up for the Marines who is then killed in action; and a malpractice suit effectively annihilates her practice. The only thing to be done, apparently, is to buy an RV and head from Ohio to southern Alaska, where her “stepsister who was not quite a stepsister” lives. Every romantic notion about heading for the hills is wrecked in short order: the RV is slow and hard to manage, let alone park; every beautiful vista abuts a tourist trap where staples are wildly overpriced; and Josie’s stepsister has a cultic relationship with the locals that forbids sticking around. (And that “not a quite a stepsister” situation, once it’s explained, is understandably awkward.) Between the novel's title, its episodic structure, and the scenes of rain and wildfire that shape the book’s second half, it’s clear Eggers means to craft a contemporary epic in which the bad guy is our lack of connection with nature. (Josie’s stepsister lives in Homer.) Josie herself is an intermittently poignant and affecting figure, prone to comic musings about writing a musical about her hapless experiences or dourly fixating on a daymare of a bottle breaking across her face. But those details can’t compensate for the overall baggy and rambling nature of the story, which doesn’t meaningfully develop Josie’s character and mainly reduces her children into plot complications. “We are not civilized people,” Josie muses. But this novel is an unpersuasive glimpse into our nascent ferality.
An ungainly, overlong merger of an adventure tale and social critique.