When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica
Park Row Books
Release Date: September 4, 2018
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪
I finished Mary Kubica’s latest novel, When the Lights Go Out, yesterday and I’m still reeling from the ending. It seemed like a fitting juxtaposition to review a book whose title focuses on light (or lack thereof) during Hannukah, the festival of lights, so without further ado, let’s get on with it.
This is one of those stories where I finished the final page, and then opened right back up to the beginning to try to work my way through the details I missed that led up to the ending. I don’t really do that ever. I usually vaguely backtrack in my mind until I’ve convinced myself I see the threads that tie everything together, but this time I flipped back through the physical pages to reread several excerpts with my newfound insight. To me, that’s a sign of a good thriller. There was enough of a plot twist at the end that I was not only shocked, but also needed to piece everything together anew. I wasn’t tired of the story, I wasn’t done with the character’s lives just because Kubica’s narrative had come to a close, I wanted to actually understand. Now, the ending of this story is very controversial amongst reviewers, and I can definitely see why. I have mixed feelings too, but more about that later.
When the Lights Go Out flip-flops between the storylines of Jessie and Eden, her mother. Eden’s chapters take place before Jessie is born, when Eden and her husband Aaron have just moved into a new home, and are trying desperately for a baby. Upon Aaron’s recommendation, Eden has decided not to get a job, instead to just sit around waiting to get pregnant. Aaron’s character confused me somewhat. His relationship with Eden seemed wonderfully electric at the start, but the more we saw of him the less I liked him. When he suddenly reappears at the end of the story, however, we’re meant to believe he was a sweet and caring man and husband. I’m still not sure what the reader was supposed to make of him… As Eden spends day after day alone and childless, she becomes obsessed with babies, and other people’s children. She goes so far as to nearly take another woman’s daughter at one point (at least one point), all the while telling the reader that she is not a bad person, but that there is something, something coming, that she did that was bad.
Meanwhile, Jessie’s plot line picks up the story years later when her mother is dying of cancer. Jessie sits in the hospital, unable to sleep until she receives a strong dose of medication from one of the nurses watching Eden. When she wakes up, Jessie finds out she has slept through her mother’s death. From there, she sets out to find her way in the world alone. Jessie is one of the most unreliable narrators I have ever had the pleasure of reading. She is unable to sleep for days on end, and begins to hallucinate very early on in her tale, seeing everything from dead birds to men watching her from windows. Each time Jessie began to describe what she was seeing, I had to ask myself how much I really trusted her, and by the time I was nearing the end of the novel, the answer was not at all.
Directly following her mom’s death, Jessie decides she wants to attend college, but, early on in the application process, she finds out that her social security number is on file as being that of a little girl who died when she was a toddler. From there, Jessie’s life spins into mayhem, as she convinces herself that she was kidnapped as a child, that she sees her father (whom she’s never met) everywhere she goes, and that there are voices speaking to her through the vents of her new home. As her mind becomes more and more garbled and sleep deprived, I almost started to believe that Eden must really have snatched someone else’s kid and passed Jessie off as her own. Until. That twist. If you have any intention of reading this novel, please stop here for your own sanity.
Never did I think that I would give a four star (err, cookie) rating to a book that uses the phrase “It was all a dream” as a non-ironic way to explain that actual contents of over 50% of the novel. Nonetheless, it turns out that Jessie actually was asleep during her entire psychotic journey, passed out on that medication she was given by a nurse (remember that?). I wasn’t totally enraged by this for a couple of reasons. One: Jessie’s plot was not making sense by the end. I knew nothing she was saying was real, which was frustrating. It felt like there was no way she would ever figure out her reality, and she was headed towards accidentally killing herself in the final dream sequence, which would have been an even more infuriating ending. The novel made a lot more sense knowing that Jessie’s experiences were not real. And two: The way that Kubica wove pieces of Jessie’s reality into her dream was so cool! The identity theft, the little girl killed in a hit and run, and her new friend with the “blue gum-ball eyes,” it was all reality based. These were details the reader could, theoretically, have picked out of the first chapter of Jessie’s narration and traced throughout the book. I definitely didn’t, but props to the author this clever incorporation of reality.
I whipped up a batch of chewy gooey Milky Way Blondies (recipe by Crazy for Crust) while I was tearing through this novel. This is a super quick recipe to make. The most time consuming aspect was chopping up the milky way bars, and I ate so many pieces of them while I was doing so that I really didn’t mind… Once that was done, everything just got mixed up in a bowl, pressed into a 9×13 inch pan and thrown in the oven. I was settled back on the couch with my book in no time! If you’ve read this one, I want to hear your take on the ending, did you love it, hate it, somewhere in between? Let me know!