Weather by Jenny Offill: A novel for our times

Cover image If you’re a reader who prefers a neat plot within a linear, well-defined narrative best steer clear of Jenny Offill’s new novel. If, like me, you’re a fan of Dept. of Speculation and have been hoping for a little while to see Offill’s name pop up in the publishing schedules, you’re in for a treat. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s America and the ever more urgent climate crisis, Weather follows Lizzie as she tries to take care of everyone while disappearing down an apocalyptic wormhole, responding to the emails of listeners to the podcast, Hell and High Water.

Lizzie works as a librarian, answering the many and various questions of its members, watching the comings and goings of the meditation class which she decides to join and fretting about her recovering drug addict brother, Henry, her husband Ben and their son, Eli. When Sylvia offers her work answering emails to her environmental podcast, Lizzie accepts, diligently researching and answering the concerns of both doomsday and evangelical listeners attracted by its name. Lizzie’s domestic worries continue to multiply: dodging the mother she offended at Eli’s old school, wondering if they’ll ever rid themselves of mice without upsetting Eli, taking in Henry when his marriage founders and toying with the idea of a fling, all while researching a ‘doomsted’ plan. By the end of this sharp, witty novella, the mice are still in situ, Henry has been six months clean and Lizzie has finally gone to the dentist but the planet, of course, is still warming.

Can pets be saved in Christ and go to heaven? If not, what will happen to them?

Offill delivers Weather in bite-sized chunks, paragraphs of whatever is preoccupying Lizzie, punctuating her narrative with questions from podcast listeners, anxious as to what they might do to prepare, where they might be safest, how to feed themselves and their families. Lizzie spends her time trying to solve everyone else’s problems with little emotional energy left over for Ben, Eli or herself. There can be no resolution to her many concerns, domestic or global. It’s impossible to save everyone – even Sylvia seems to have given up:

Of course, the world continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden

Weather approaches the crisis facing our planet with wit and panache, a constant ever darkening backdrop to Lizzie’s everyday dilemmas. It’s a triumph: fragmented, non-linear and discursive, it really shouldn’t work yet it does so beautifully.

Granta Books: London 2020 9781783784769 224 pages Hardback

22 thoughts on “Weather by Jenny Offill: A novel for our times”

  1. Strangely enough, I was not a huge fan of Dept of Speculation. I liked individual sentences or paragraphs but not the overall lack of structure. I felt the structureless style worked much better in this book, however.

    1. I was a big fan of Specualtion as you’ve probably gathered but I think you’re right about Weather. The twin themes of Trump’s America and climate change running through it seem to make it more cohesive.

      1. I think I’m in a similar position to Marina when it comes to Dept. of Speculation, but I’m intrigued to hear that you both feel this one is somewhat more cohesive. In terms of style and form, it does sound a little like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a book I absolutely adored…

  2. This is one book I have been eagerly anticipating this year. I absolutely loved Dept of Speculation and was quite excited to know that Offill had a new novel out. Good to know you liked this, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!

  3. It’s wonderful isn’t it! I’m 2/3rds of the way through at the moment. I just adore her style. I’m not sure whether I prefer Dept of Speculation to this one slightly at the moment – but there’s little in it.

    1. So glad you’re enjoying it, Annabel. I think Weather had a slight edge over Speculation for me in the end but as you say there’s very little in it. Fingers crossed it’s on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

  4. I imagine this is one book where it would be hard to sit on the fence. You’ll either love it or the style will drive you crazy. i would have to sample a few pages before deciding to buy just in case I fall into the second category

  5. I didn’t think I would be interested in this since I was not in love with Dept. of Speculation. I felt just as Marina Sofia describes it in her comment above. But there are so many elements of this that sound like they were made for me that I’m just going to have to read it. Maybe this is the one I will love. Great review!

    1. Thank you, Naomi. I hope this one works for you. I think Marina and I agree that although the narrative is as fragmented as Dept. of Speculation’s it’s somehow more cohesive, if that helps.

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