Skip to main content
book review
Open this photo in gallery:

The bones of a dead animal lie on the ground of the Thuru Lodge game farm near Groblershoop on January 15, 2020. The weather in the title of Jenny Offill’s third novel can be taken as a metaphor for the physical and emotional noise of daily life.GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP/Getty Images

  • Title: Weather
  • Author: Jenny Offill
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Pages: 224

Many of us who, only decade ago, might have struggled to explain the difference between climate and weather are now well-schooled. We know that a sudden deep freeze in March or an oddly cool July day aren’t indicative of a pause in global warming’s relentless march. Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get, goes a saying sometimes attributed to Mark Twain. And what we’ve been told to expect, climate-wise, is pretty terrifying.

The weather in the title of Jenny Offill’s third novel can be taken as a metaphor for the physical and emotional noise of daily life. Its first-person narrator, Lizzie, a failed academic (reminiscent of the heroine in Offill’s blockbuster last novel, Dept. of Speculation), works at the help desk of her university’s library, where she deals with a lot of personal weather: anemic adjuncts, anxious students with their nails bitten down to the quick. Lizzie’s husband, Ben, a Classics-scholar-turned-coder, jokes about how rich they’d be if Lizzie were an actual shrink.

There’s been some rough weather in Lizzie’s life lately, too, revolving around her brother, Henry, a recovering drug addict who, thanks to a new job and recent marriage, had showed every sign of having his ship turned round. It’s when his child is born that Henry starts slipping back into a familiar darkness, and Lizzie into a familiar caregiver role that increases as his marriage crumbles. Lizzie’s meditation instructor describes Lizzie’s relationship with Henry as “enmeshed,” and, indeed, we later learn his previous struggles were part of the reason Lizzie never completed her PhD.

The weather in Lizzie’s home life is of a more mundane variety: mice in the walls of her and Ben’s Brooklyn apartment; her son, Eli, losing his lunch box; the dog making a slobbery mess of his rawhide bone. Lizzie’s marriage is a solid one overall, despite the fact that she and Ben, in her words, “never notice the same things.” She fails to observe that the scaffolding has been removed from the front of their building; he’s oblivious that their neighbour down the hall is a drug dealer.

Those misaligned domestic focal lengths serve as a kind of mirror to the climate-versus-weather – or, if you prefer, forest-versus-trees – divide presiding over the novel. Offill may be using weather metaphorically, but the climate all that weather builds to is actual climate: beneath Weather’s quotidian surface, Lizzie and almost everyone around her are in a near-constant state of anxiety about the planet’s fate. Her ex-prof Sylvia’s podcast on the topic, “The Center Cannot Hold” (“they could all be called that”), becomes so popular that Sylvia hires Lizzie to come to conferences with her and answer her e-mail – “questions about the Rapture mixed with ones about wind turbines and carbon taxes.” But though she lectures on the immorality of complacency, Sylvia eventually succumbs to the overwhelmingness of it all herself, quitting her own foundation and jettisoning plans to “rewild half the earth” in order to retreat to a trailer in the desert (“there’s no hope any more, only witness”). Lizzie, meanwhile, visits survivalist sites and contemplates her “doomstead.”

In all this, the terms “global warming” and “climate change” are never used, simple juxtaposition being Offill’s preferred way to highlight our skewed priorities. Lizzie’s self-reassurance that “The moon will be fine ... No one’s worrying about the moon” as she looks out her window at night, for example, serves to highlight the misplaced anxieties of the teacher screaming “Safety First!” through a bullhorn in Eli’s schoolyard in the next scene. Lizzie may be “spooked” by her son’s smallness in his fortress-like school, but aren’t we all about to be subsumed? And yet life, in its contemporary guise, continues apace: Eli and Ben build perfect digital worlds in a Minecraft-like game; a student tells Lizzie how she’s embracing slowness by using an “obsolescent” 2-year-old cellphone; a white male prof gets a card telling him to “check his privilege.”

Even more than in her other novels, Offill’s characteristically short, block paragraphs feel like a containment strategy. Fixing the environment may prove beyond our ken, but we can at least make syntax do our bidding. And if you’ve read Offill before, you know her ability to temper angst with deadpan humour. Lizzie dreams of being in a supermarket where “bad music is playing ... I walk up and down the aisles, trying to dim the lights, but I can’t find the switch. I wake up, disappointed. What happened to flying dreams?”

Some have argued that artists and writers have a responsibility to chronicle the rapidly unfurling, self-inflicted climate catastrophe. Art born of responsibility, however, is rarely good art. Offill’s novel, on the other hand, touches a nerve because it’s a genuine response to existential threat. How do we know it’s genuine? Because we feel it, too.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe