You Have to Read This: Jill Ciment’s Sharp, Creepy Novel Act of God


There’s a kabillion books published each year. We swear that the ones in “You Have to Read This” are worth your eyeball time!

What You Have to Read: Act of God by Jill Ciment

The Gist: An unsettling novel that opens with an outbreak of phosphorescent mushrooms in a Brooklyn closet and then blooms to follow the lives of four contaminated women.

A Taste:

“That was disturbing,” Edith said. “My god, it grew freakishly fast. The head was so pink and bulbous. It almost looked like a giant’s thumb had poked through the wall.”

Kat waited to see if Edith would draw the obvious analogy, but she wasn’t sure if her white-haired, sixty-four-year-old sister had ever seen an erect penis.

Why You Should Read It: Eerie, perplexing, sharp-elbowed, and always surprising, Ciment’s fifth novel stings readers with insights into our haphazard connectedness. In her ‘shroom-poisoned Brooklyn, and in the lives of four women who each lose all they had counted on to survive there, the brisk Act of God concerns the disasters of fate its title suggests: The ephemera you won’t chuck might lead to your building getting razed by the health department, your big success might be the dumb commercial you booked between playing Shakespearean queens, the twin you live with — and seem to commune with in dreams — might believe there’s nothing mystic to your connection at all.

Ciment’s finest invention here, besides that mushroom, is an archive treasured by middle-aged twins Edith and Kat. Their mother, a popular advice columnist, had been the first in her field to dare to “call body parts and functions by their real names and answer sexual questions with nonjudgmental, instructional advice.” At the novel’s opening, the twins hope to publish a coffee-table book of 50-year-old letters to their mother, all heartrending missives signed “Ashamed in Nebraska” or “Wicked in the Bronx.”

Ciment writes that the letters

asked questions about the inexplicable behavior of lovers, boyfriends, crushes, flirts, husbands, other men’s lovers, other wives’ husbands, all their fellow creatures. It hardly mattered whether the question had been composed with a blunt pencil on a greasy brown bag or with a fountain pen on Plaza stationery, the letters basically asked the same thing — Am I lovable?

Such flares of language and truth light Ciment’s pages: There’s the “saccharine brown effervescence” of a Diet Coke, a sandwich with “a swipe of mustard,” and a Westchester retirement home that looks “as if a prison had been built in heaven.” Told her insurance company has deemed the outbreak “an act of God,” landlord/actress Vida asks, “When did State Farm become religious?”

Those beauties — and the fleet, short-story-like pacing — makes it easy to forgive the book’s somewhat unsatisfying ending, especially as that ending’s dissatisfactions seem by design: These characters’ new lives are just taking hold, and like all of us Ciment’s people are too busy to grow, really, or to make sense of it all. First, they must face the hard work of not unraveling, so it’s only fair that their story has its loose ends.

Hey, you could do worse than following @studiesincrap on the Twitter thing.