After a teasing little prologue in italics, offered by a seemingly post-apocalyptic "we," Jean Thompson's new novel starts out simply enough: A man wakes to a gray morning. "He'd fallen asleep in front of the computer again." In fact, this narrative voice begins by seeming so simple as to feel flat, which is fitting for this first character we meet, Sean, a down-on-his-luck carpenter living with his teenage son in a house soon to be foreclosed upon.
Then, just as Sean's story is becoming interesting (and certainly no luckier), Thompson switches to another unhappy soul, 14-year-old Linnea, whose uneasy adolescence, made that much uneasier by her poorly blended family, is just about to hit a sort of bad-luck jackpot. (Yes! This novel has cliffhangers!)
Again the book shifts, introducing us to a wealthy, unhealthy old man just in time to see him out of this world, trailing another couple of characters who have key roles to play in the unspooling plot: Sean's son Conner, now a desperate young handyman himself; and the widow, whose pile of money engenders a plot of its own: The Humanity Project, no less.
The widow's Humanity Project, along with her generosity in general, does fold these characters and some others into one rangy story. But it's Thompson's own humanity project that's really interesting, heartfelt and farther-reaching. The Project, which starts out with the amorphous idea of doing some good, morphs into a living study of the link between economics and behavior. And this, really, is the larger experiment being enacted and observed in this novel, pitting as it does humanity in many forms against the forces of luck (or fate) in its many guises, ranging from inheritance to natural (and unnatural) disaster.
Family (and what could be more a matter of luck?) looms large in the equation; money looms larger; and love threads its way through the mess. In one of the interstices in italics, the reflective voice speculates that, "surely within our brief and mortal selves there were possibilities. … And while some of these had to do with money, which might always be beyond our reach, there was also love, which was not."
That this does actually seem possible — after all the rotten luck and poor health and violent upheaval and sadness — is a tribute to Jean Thompson's art, which, beginning so slowly and seemingly simply, expands and deepens to contain multitudes without ever losing sight of each singular soul, "sitting here alone, as she had been, in one way or another, all her life, and there was nothing out there in the dark worse than that."
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.