Weather is a strange, disturbing, and important book. Offill uses fragments of prose—typically a few lines or half a page—to present a small group of characters in New York City who experience dread, unhealthy behaviors, and many difficult choices. The fragments jump from topic to topic and points of view, suggesting chaos in the characters, in much of modern life, and even in the structure of this novel. “Weather” suggests “whether”: whether humans can survive not only from one day to the next but also in the long term that includes the climate crisis threatening our earth. 

The cast of characters is small and carefully arranged. Lizzie (our main focus) is married to Ben; they have a son Eli. Lizzie’s brother Henry is married to Catherine, and they have a baby girl, Iris; Ben and Lizzie have problematic mothers. A genogram of these and other related characters looks like the cast of a Restoration comedy, full of harmony and good will, but in Weather conflicts swirl and grow chaotically. Catherine divorces Henry. Ben suddenly goes on a three-week trip. Widespread complications include street drugs, alcohol, diet abnormalities, sleep deprivation. There are also mental problems such as confusion, hallucination, loneliness, delusions, and panic, as well as economic difficulties. Only Catherine has a career path, but, at the end of the book, she appears to be “tilting into the abyss too” (p. 179), according to Lizzie. 

While some fragments describe thoughts and actions of the characters, others present a giant whirlpool of cultural, environmental, and historical topics, including doomsday preppers, Rapturists, and the end of civilization, also gun rights, multicultural frictions, popular religion, a need for a strongman to govern, noticeably sick people and loss of medical services. Other topics touched on include hate literature, mob rule, suicide, torture, as well as references to Fukushima, the Holocaust, and 9/11. Many of these worry our characters; others are simply mentioned as “the surround” for all people around the world. Our characters have fantasies of hope but usually feel panic, dread, loneliness, guilt, or despair. Sylvia (Lizzie’s former professor and sometime boss) is an academic who appears to understand climate change and the need to warn people, but she gives up, saying “there’s no hope” (p. 133).  

The first 127 pages swirl around the characters with little progression of story. The next section (4) accelerates the craziness among them all. The last two sections seem more “stable,” but with no actual resolutions. Lizzie says “I will die early and ignobly” (p. 187). In the very last pages, she takes the boy Eli (the only normal major character) to a playground. Later she kneels by her bed and prays for “Mercy” (p. 197). Following the last page, we see only a one-line URL: Is this part of the novel? Do we click on it? 


The book is a tour de force: brilliant, chaotic, and frightening. These American characters are the canaries in the mine shaft of climate change/climate crisis for the entire world. The fragments do not make a coherent mosaic like the tesserae at Ravenna but rather demonstrate universal, existential absurdity. Weather is not easy reading; readers may feel overburdened by the textual disorder and relentless messages of doom.           

Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Weather refers to actual events, behaviors, and technologies, expanding them to extremes. The “preppers” for the coming apocalypse consider “doomsteads” instead of “homesteads.” (There is considerable dark humor in this book.) The characters themselves see pervasive ironies in the distance between possible goods and actual grim realities, but they are helpless to take any bold steps toward solutions. They experience wide ranges of emotions and behaviors, and we may feel superior to them, even laugh at them (for example, the “couponers” at stores), but they are magnified versions of our own fears and failures and the tragedies we all may face in future years as the Earth continues to heat. 

The boy Eli and his schoolmate Amira provide a symbolic Adam and Eve for the next generations Catherine—his mother—says he should not have children, although he should “have some skills” (p.198). She is speaking to Lizzie, who now appears to be more mother to Eli than Catherine is. Which viewpoint is more tragic: the suggested cessation of human generations, or the inevitably more dangerous world for all people?

Weather is especially hard to read during the Covid19 illness encircling the globe. In a time of “social distancing,” many of us look for order and meaning, for human connection, and truths that seem immutable. The novel is valuable for showing many threats to the minds of humans, the social order, and the Earth. It affirms that literary art can have purpose, even if the message is grim: Offill’s text is by turns vigorous, funny, dramatic, even lyric. The book grabs us by our collars and challenges us to perceive, assess, perhaps even act. 

The surprising and puzzling URL at the end offers the strange jumble “obligatorynoteofhope.” (Is “obligatory” an ironic or apologetic thought?) I clicked on the URL then printed the 16 pages of material. Four introductory short paragraphs (not fragments) appear to be from the author of the novel. In marked contrast to the many pages before, she now writes about “collective action as the antidote to my dithering and despair.” She tersely affirms, “There’s a way in for everyone.” Three sections follow. “Tips for Trying Times” presents 45 short and encouraging paragraphs, each with a headline, usually with a commanding verb: “Help Someone,” “Be Hopeful, Not Optimistic,” “Answer the Call,” and so on. Next, “People of Conscience” presents 12 photos of people with their names and a short identification, for example, “Maulian Dana, Tribal Embassador” (sic). In the last section, “Ways to Get Involved,” Offill describes three examples of organized community builders: the Sunrise Movement, Transition Towns, and Extinction Rebellion. All 16 pages are positive, inspiring, and impressive in their range of approaches, but will readers actually open and read this material?  

Having earlier ignored the epigraph to the novel, I looked back to it. It is “NOTES FROM A TOWN MEETING IN MILFORD CONNECTICUT, 1640.” Four lines read, “Voted, that the earth is the Lord’s…, that the earth is given to Saints…that we are the Saints.” Thus, the epigraph and the final URL together provide a very, very thin but positive frame for the bleak 200 pages held between them. We may wonder: do they somehow mitigate the grim calamities of Weather, or does its enormous grimness overwhelm that frame?       


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count