The Short Version: It’s the same 1994 you remember, except in this one there are spaceships. They don’t do much – just land in the backyard and sit there for 9 months. But when the Allen Family wins a visit from a ship around the same time that Cynthia (the mother) is diagnosed with cancer, so begins a fracturing of their world that wouldn’t look too out of place in our 1994.
The Review: There’s something pleasant about reading a novel set in our recent past, even when things don’t go well for its characters. Perhaps it is because the world, for all its modern conveniences, has become a little darker and a little more difficult to compass – or at least it seems that way – and so we turn back to a past we all know and can at least somewhat remember, allowing ourselves a rose-tinted look at the calmer way we think things used to be.
So Margaret Wappler’s twist on the mid-90s is a great one: the idea that at some point we had contact with aliens from Jupiter and as part of an… educational exchange, I guess, they have been sending spaceships to chill in people’s back yards for 9 months or so. They flash lights, whirr a bit, dump some non-toxic goo, and are otherwise unseen and (for a freaking spaceship) unobtrusive. But it makes this time period that we all know so well just a little more unfamiliar, a little stranger.
This cuts both ways, though. The aliens are, whether they were meant to be or not, the most interesting part of the novel. The Allen Family – a family of environmentalists, newly hosting a flying saucer – are compelling, to be sure, but our interest in their ordinary 90s lives is unfortunately reduced by the fact that at some point we made contact with aliens from Jupiter. Adding to this, their focus is almost entirely on the saucer, even to the expense of their health and well-being – and so of course our focus is going to go there too. I found myself thinking, often, of the scene in Signs where they catch the alien signal on the baby monitor and there’s a moment where the family is all arranged on the hood of the car as they marvel at the wonder of the universe. But where that movie focused much more on the aliens, Wappler’s novel is really just a combusting-family story with a little bit of a speculative tweak.
Because it turns out that this is a cancer novel. Not only that, it’s an environmental danger / cancer novel. When Cynthia Allen is diagnosed with aggressive cancer and we realize, from very early on in the book, that she will not make it to the end of the novel (that’s not a spoiler by the way; it’s expressed well within the first hundred pages), it feels obvious that environmental hero Ernest would seek a cause in their surrounding environment. The ultimate reveal – one that ties the health of the spaceship to the health of the town – is not so much surprising as it is the sort of resolution you’d expect out of a film made in the 90s that was trying to get people to understand climate change or why we should take better care of the environment. It’s so on the nose, in a way, that it almost dilutes its point.
The characters in the novel are also frustratingly underdeveloped, almost to a one. Ernest, the patriarch, has an arc to be sure but it’s the kind of arc that feels ripped from a Franzen novel: he can’t handle his wife’s illness, he’s obsessed by the flying saucer, and he starts entertaining the idea of an affair – and once he goes through all of it, he comes back out the other side as a Better Man. Cynthia is given little to do at all, really, and the children remain rather two-dimensionally 90s teenagers, only achieving a little bit of growth in the form of a closing arc in the final 50 pages. I closed the book wondering why I cared about these characters, really – but within a few days, I wasn’t even wondering that because I’d just totally stopped thinking about them.
The thing that this novel really has going for it is Wappler’s sense of humor and delightfully quirky sense of pacing. The absolute best parts of this novel are the entries from the saucer-watching log, where the family is meant to keep tabs on everything the saucer does but where they just as often snipe at each other or refer to things utterly unrelated. There is a comic bounce to those moments that reminded me of the absurdity of The Family Fang or Pushing Daisies, the kinds of stories that tell an ordinary tale with a demented bent. Wappler seemed to be aiming for that – the seductive and brassy reporter, the odd radio broadcasts Gabe picks up, even just the fact of the saucers – and she does keep a generally bouncy pace throughout the novel. But she never does it better than in those family journals, which are alone worth the price of admission.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Ultimately a pretty ordinary story of a family ripped apart, despite the appearances of stranger things (i.e. spaceships). Wappler has a charming voice and an eye for silliness, but she doesn’t let the fun take over and instead delivers something pretty mundane. The characters don’t truly develop, instead just meandering forward – which might’ve been the point, but which doesn’t necessarily make for compelling reading. It’s not a bad book by any stretch – just a fine one. Your mileage will vary depending on whether you come in expecting that or expecting something more.