Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Should Come With a Free Bottle of Purell

The Things That Keep Us Here
by Carla Buckley
Published by Delacorte Press
3 Out of 5 Stars

The Things That Keep Us Here explores what would happen to an average American family in the event of a worldwide pandemic and, in capturing the rapidly deteriorating conditions, the perpetual paranoia, and the tedium of isolation while cut off from all forms of communication, it largely succeeds. For days after reading it, I found myself making mental checklists. Do we have enough candles? Check. Do we have enough canned goods? Check. Do we have enough hand sanitizer? Check. Do we have enough paper books to wait out the pandemic? F'ing A, check. As a germaphobe, I started washing my hands like I was scrubbing in for surgery and wiping down the shopping cart with an attention to detail that has the Wal-Mart door greeter eyeing me with both suspicion and sympathy. During the "peace be with you" handshake at church, all I can think of is "flu be with you," "flu be with you." This book has not been good for my psyche.

But is it a good book? I guess the best way to answer that is with the time-tested pros and cons list!

What I Liked 
*For the most part, Buckley creates believable characters and family relationships. The growing tension between the daughters, between the parents, between the parents and the daughters as day after day passes in boredom and as life regresses to a focus on the basics of survival is realistically portrayed. 
*The rapid breakdown of city, state and national services is thought provoking. I think many people wonder if they personally are prepared for such a disaster, but what about the institutions (government and commercial) we rely on daily? After all, we've seen the response to events like Katrina. What if we faced a pandemic that wiped out nearly half of the country's population? That's some pretty chilling stuff.
*Ann's response to taking in a possibly infected baby and putting her own children at risk presents the moral dilemmas one would likely face in such an event. At what point does caring for one's own family trump one's compassion for others? 
*Unlike many pandemic thrillers, it doesn't focus on the science and the race to find a vaccine. Seeing a real family cope felt like a new twist for the genre.

What I Did Not Like 
*While Buckley does realistically capture the minutiae of daily life in such a scenario, I'd be lying if I said it always made for riveting reading. A good portion of the book reads like one really long snow break. Also, Buckley's writing is serviceable, but a stylist she is not.
*Much of the book is contrived in a way that is unnecessary. When the book begins, Ann and Peter Brooks have been separated for a year. We learn (very early on--this isn't spoiler territory) their marriage has become increasingly unhappy after the death of their infant son. Of course, the pandemic brings Peter back home. This smacks of Hallmark Hall of Fame "will disaster bring them back together again?" territory. When Peter arrives, he has a beautiful young foreign exchange student, Shazia, in tow. Ann is forced to wonder whether or not this is Peter's new lover, but graciously allows Shazia to stay with her newly reconstituted family. Buckley was probably angling for a subplot that would help move the story forward since writing about realistic day to day life (keeping the house warm, keeping the kids fed, keeping the laundry done, etc.) could become monotonous. However, these forced relationship dynamics are distracting and drain away some of the tension and suspense. 
*Also distracting is the constant veiled references to what happened to their baby. The story of how and why the child died is purposely withheld for no clear reason other than to give a "surprise" twist at the end that didn't contribute to the family's experience during the pandemic and lacked any kind of emotional payoff.
*Peter is a virologist. Why? Other than finding a flock of dead birds in the beginning and occasionally checking in with his colleagues whenever the power comes back on to read up on whether or not a vaccine is available, his job has no bearing on the outcome of the novel. It particularly bothered me that someone whose job is to study viruses would make one of the most ridiculous decisions in the novel.*(see below for spoiler)

In the end, it's fair to say that this is just an okay book. WhileThe Things That Keep Us Here certainly causes some reflection and brings a human element to the often statistical hypotheticals about the impact of a pandemic, honestly, a newspaper or magazine article about this subject triggers the same level of fear and unease within me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've typed the word "pandemic" so many times that I have an overwhelming urge to go wash my hands.


*After becoming exposed to the virus, Peter protects his family by staying in the garage for 48 hours (the incubation time for the flu). But that's it--48 hours. The minute that 48 hours is up, he's back in the house, hugging everyone and engaging the missus in a late night laundry room "whew, can't believe I just cheated death" shag-a-thon. Any parent, with or without a virologist's knowledge, probably would have given it one more day just to play it safe. But, no, the virologist doesn't even think about the damn virus mutating and Peter's joyous return home from the garage turns into a potential Oprah-esque "You get a virus! And you get a virus! And you get a virus!" scenario. 

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