Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Vigil Harbor — an historic town on the Atlantic Seaboard — is a kind of safe harbor for many of its residents. It feels protected from the ever increasing calamities of the broader world — rising oceans, increased acts of terrorism, epidemics. When a spate of divorces and a couple of strangers arrive —each with a hidden agenda — suddenly the problems of the world seem to hit a little closer to home.

Only ten years into the future, many of the characters are understandably living in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and despair. In the world (too well) portrayed by the author, Survival Studies has become a college major, climate change has diminished songbirds and summer fruit almost to extinction, coastal towns have been triaged into oblivion, various groups are hunkering down in survivalist bunkers, and eco-terrorism is on the rise with frequent and deadly bombings. One character suggests that humankind is busy “unbuilding the ark.” Other characters are stubbornly optimistic or simply moving on with their lives, adapting to a constantly changing reality as we humans have been doing for millennia.

A set of deeply drawn characters — a despairing biologist who believes he works in “marine hospice”; a retired English high school teacher bent on revenge; an optimistic architect who considers himself “an architect for the future, not the apocalypse”; a college drop out back home after a narrow escape; a brilliant landscaper still terrified of possible deportation after 40 years in the country; and others — all wind around each other while living, reflecting, worrying, and hoping. They are having children and consciously considering what it means to parent in a rapidly deteriorating landscape. They are creating art, appreciating beauty, and finding people and places to love. They are finding ways to define and follow their passions to try to make the world a better place (for some definition of better and some definition of place).

Julia Glass is one of my favorite writers — as in the actual use of words to describe, set a mood, bring to life. Her vocabulary is both large and up-to-date (it’s possible that she made up several of the more modern slang words). She creates these amazing turns of phrase — the words literally turning / tumbling around in the phrase — and so many of her sentences are gorgeous little nuggets that I grew tired of underlining. She does a pretty interesting job of describing nature, pieces of art, and different architectures. I say “interesting” because I typically don’t enjoy descriptions — I don’t visualize from words well — but her descriptions touch on more than just the visual, and I find myself reading slowly, rapt. Her depiction of technology evolution and the resulting shifts in human behavior over the next ten years was seamlessly and utterly believably done.

I valued the personal reflections, discussions, and general interactions between characters — each with sometimes wildly different perceptions of reality — what was happening, what was important, what could be done, who to blame. I appreciated the sometimes subtle differences between generations, culminating in a last few pages describing the thought processes of a young (middle school age) boy whose worldview had obviously been molded by the events of his short life.

Overall, a book that made me think, made me understand other people a little better, and gave me a set of characters that I would enjoy knowing better. I did stick to reading during the day because I am easily anxietified (my word) and wanted to be able to sleep.

Some good quotes:
“The slivers of grief in your flesh dissolve or work their way out. One day they’re gone, even if they leave you with tiny, whisper-thin scars.”

“Celestino is not a man who thinks that thorough knowledge of a person’s history, much less his or her emotional “journey,” equates with greater trust or deeper love.”

“The art she made was the obsession reaching for a language.”

“Did all intelligent, creative people need to be tangled up in thickets of neurosis, their psyches riddled with the stigmata of previous heartache?”

“She was living on less than a shoestring; she was living on a filament of fishing line.”

“I am a living redundancy. I realize: the wife not so much replaced as deleted, just as I might take my green pen … and blithely score through a student’s unnecessary adverb when the verb can stand on its philandering own.”

“Time will tell,” said Margo. “As it alway does, the fucker.”

“Is this the beginning of old age, this irrepressible pull of futility? My own father lapsed into a storm cloud of silence once he retired.”

“But that was one of my worst faults: fretting over past choices when they have been chiseled into history.”

“His step father refers to his generation as Generation F: failure, fuckup, fatalist; take your pick.”

This book will be published on May 3, 2022. Many thanks to the author for giving me an early reader copy

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