Too Soon? A look at COVID novels

Eventually, there will be a flood of them. Books written about (and some, no doubt, during) our collective and oh-so-individual experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, two years after the early days of quarantine and lockdown and forming “pods” with those we love (or perhaps don’t), the books are just starting to trickle in.

I decided to read a few of them to get an early take on what the “pandemic literature” might look like this time around. I’ve always had a soft spot for such books—some of my favorite historical fiction is set during the great plague (Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks) and the 1918 influenza pandemic (The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen and 2020’s The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue). So I figured it was a good moment to check out the newest offerings in this often-depressing genre.

I read four books that were firmly set in the early months of the pandemic: Our Country Friends by Gary Schteyngart, Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, and Hello (From Here) by Chandler Baker and Wesley King. Did I totally love any of them … well, no, can’t say that I did. But I appreciated (almost) all of their takes on pandemic life in the tumultuous year that was 2020.

Our Country Friends by Gary Schteyngart examines what happens when a group of friends (and friends-of-friends and people we sorta know) gather in a country commune of sorts to wait out the pandemic. It’s an unruly cast of characters and they join and come apart in both predictable and surprising ways. It was neither as funny nor as profound as I hoped, and there were aspects of it that were just ridiculous. That said, there were also many moments that rang true, both in terms of the vagaries of friendship, in general, and the stresses of isolation, in particular.

The book that felt closest to my own experience was The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Perhaps this it because it centers on books and bookstores, both near and dear to my heart. Or perhaps it is because it takes place in the Twin Cities, where I, too, went through both lockdown and all that happened when George Floyd was murdered outside of Cup Foods. Those portions of the novel were incredibly true-to-life, reading like nonfiction. However, The Sentence was also about how the main character (and the bookstore she works in) is haunted by an old customer who was both much-loved and cantankerous. Though I found this plotline engaging, the two parts of book were smashed together in ways that didn’t work for me. I love me a good ghost story … but this one felt underdeveloped and awkwardly spliced onto the story of a city roiling in grief and anger and isolation.

What to say about Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult … I guess that it’s about a woman who decides to get on a plane and go to the Galapagos Islands alone just as lockdown is beginning, leaving her boyfriend working as a resident in a NYC hospital just as the numbers and the despair are ramping up. It’s a book with a giant twist which I won’t reveal. I will say that I didn’t like the book much before the twist (for reasons relating to both plot and character), felt a sense of both anger and hilarity when the twist hit, and didn’t like the book any better after the twist. I’ve liked (loved?) many Jodi Picoult books in the past. This wasn’t one of them.

The only YA book I read in this set was Hello (From Here) written collaboratively by Chandler Baker and Wesley King as each was in their own lockdown thousands of miles apart. In two voices, it tells the story of a well-off teenage boy with anxiety who becomes smitten with a teenage girl who works for a grocery delivery service. They begin a relationship in the midst of social distancing and the psychological and financial stresses brought on by lockdown. I thought the authors did a great job of depicting the ways that our experiences of COVID were (are!) filtered through lenses of class, family relationships, and our very individual psychological and emotional makeup. It was a very particular slice of pandemic life, but one that was rendered with both nuance and compassion.

So that’s it for COVID-centric books. One I would solidly recommend. One I would solidly recommend against. Two somewhere on the meh scale. So perhaps, as some critics have suggested, we need more distance. Perhaps in the decades (centuries?) ahead, we’ll cast new eyes on what we’ve all experienced.

In the meantime, though, authors will continue to navigate writing about this time period in a way that both acknowledges what was happening and doesn’t (necessarily) center the pandemic in the narrative. I’ve read some books that have done this a bit clunkily (I’m looking at you, Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty) and one that has done this masterfully. So let me close this blogpost with a strong recommendation for Joan is Okay by Weike Wang. It’s a spare, insightful, and witty novel about a Chinese-American woman who is a doctor in a New York ICU ward. She’s a singular character who thrives on being a cog in the health care machine and has less interest in the complications of personal relationships. COVID makes an appearance at the end of the book, in a way that is revelatory about characters and relationships.

Perhaps this is the way I’m most comfortable with a COVID reckoning in my reading. In small bites. In ways that point to the complexity of how the pandemic changed (and continues to change) our worlds. At this point, though, I don’t need a full-blown rehash. We were all there and for now, at least, it may be best to grapple with our experiences in less panoramic ways.

I’d love to hear about your own COVID-related reading and your critiques of my critiques. Is it too soon for you? Or have you found some reads that speak to what we all continue to experience? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

3 replies to “Too Soon? A look at COVID novels

  1. Appreciate these reviews and I’m with you on small bites. I’ve only read a couple books that offer fleeting mentions of COVID (I suspect they were in production as COVID hit because the mentions felt a bit tacked on). But based upon some COVID-related TV content (Grey’s Anatomy and Mythic Quest), I’m not at all ready for full books about COVID. Appreciate the warning about Picoult’s latest. I had it on my list and will now opt out!

  2. Oh wow, it’s great that you already have a list of this theme. I myself think that stories don’t need to have COVID-related bits, unless of course they take place in a contemporary setting in the real world. Great topic here. Thanks for this post!

    1. For now, writers of contemporary fiction can grapple with it or set stories in the unspecified “now” … eventually, I’m hoping for some great historical fiction to put it all in context!

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