A young, idealistic couple is torn apart as they are entangled in the Peoples Temple cult.
Just out of college and early in their marriage, Evelyn and Lenny Lynden move to Evergreen Valley, California, so Lenny can fulfill his conscientious objector service in a state mental hospital. Lenny is soon exhausted by his work and regularly comes home with energy only to get high. Evelyn tries to devote herself to homemaking, but the loneliness wears on her. Evelyn suggests the two go to church, where she is immediately taken in by the imposing, charismatic figure of Jim Jones. Evelyn and Lenny become deeply ingrained in the Peoples Temple, and Evelyn begins an affair with Jones—who has a wife and children—and soon divorces Lenny. Evelyn (who was inspired by a woman named Carolyn Moore) eventually has a son with Jones, and Lenny marries another member. Evelyn’s isolation is clear, but any understanding of her motivations is deeply obscure. Woollett’s novel, which is heavily researched, traverses the uneasy terrain between historical fiction and all that cannot be known about the inner lives of real people. History blends with mythology, creating a dizzying effect in which a reader, too, will be searching for something to ground them. In an effort to explore multiple perspectives, Woollett (The Love of a Bad Man, 2017, etc.) begins to focus on a tumult of other characters, with Lenny and Evelyn receding from the center; the story is at times difficult to follow. Woollett explores how Jones could have been so captivating and manipulative (with a heavy focus on his lies, sexual manipulations, and abuses of his followers), but the Temple's purported focus on socialism and race relations isn't as clear. In the end, a reader feels the characters hurtling toward doom after the cult moves to Guyana. Perhaps one of the story’s most devastating takeaways is that two characters who started out deeply committed to pacifism and the imagining of a better world ultimately failed to imagine any actions other than fear, violence, and death.
Weighty and disquieting.