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'Right After the Weather' review: One incident and a life shattered

Carol Anshaw has just written her fifth novel,

Carol Anshaw has just written her fifth novel, "Right After the Weather." Credit: John Reilly

RIGHT AFTER THE WEATHER by Carol Anshaw (Atria, 269 pp., $27)

Like most of us, the characters in Carol Anshaw’s new novel have no blueprint for happiness. They lean on routine. They work. They struggle with relationships. They worry about the direction in which our country is headed.

But what happens when a traumatic event changes things forever? How do we move forward when the ground under our feet shifts with every step?

Anshaw examines that question with her typical intelligence, compassion and insight in “Right After the Weather,” her fifth novel. She explored similar issues in her terrific “Carry the One,” in which a group of siblings and their friends are involved in a fatal traffic accident on the night of a wedding. Here, she expands her scope, not focusing merely on the aftermath of a single, terrible incident, but letting it play out against a bigger, existential threat.

“Right After the Weather” unfolds more deliberately than “Carry the One,” with Anshaw taking her time to create a deliberate atmosphere of uncertainty and dread against the backdrop of the 2016 election. The book isn’t overwhelmingly political, but Anshaw views a world where a way of life is quietly — and not so quietly — falling apart, where standards we rely on are changing and being replaced with treacherous and unrecognizable terrain.

At the center of the novel is Cate, a set designer in the Chicago theater scene who is confident when she’s working with a stage but struggles to map out solutions in her own complicated life. Cate is in her early 40s, but she’s far from settled. Just out of a destructive relationship with a woman who already has a partner, Cate’s warily venturing into a new relationship. She still borrows money from her divorced parents and lives with her ex-husband, Graham, who’s retreating into an agoraphobic, paranoid state.

But there’s good in Cate’s world, too. She’s dedicated to her work and lands the job of her dreams. She’s fallen madly in love with Graham’s dog, Sailor, and has already decided that when Graham moves out, Sailor isn’t going with him. Her best friend since childhood, Neale, and Neale’s son, Joe, live nearby, proud urban pioneers who are family to Cate, who’s not close to her own parents.

A few streets over, though, another story plays out, one involving addicts and criminals, sociopaths and the marginalized. When these worlds collide, Cate commits an unexpected act of violence.

Anshaw is deeply empathetic to Cate even as she notes that violence has made Cate feel powerful despite her shaky memory. “No matter how hard she tries, she can neither hold back her memory nor force it. What she gets are short clips. … Important chunks are still missing. She doesn’t know what she’s hiding from herself. It can’t be that she’s too frightened to look at these pieces. She’s actually weirdly unfrightened. But she’s another person now. She has been tested and, in a fumbling way, has passed.”

Through a woman whose vision of herself has altered radically, “Right After the Weather” ultimately reveals the struggle to protect our sense of who we are as humans — and who we are as a country. “How will the world survive this?” Graham wants to know after the election, but the question could be asked of Cate and her future, too.

Cate will recover like most of us would, Anshaw suggests. Maybe the country can, too. So accept change. Work. Love who you love. Continue to stumble, continue to fall, then get back up and start over again, even if you might be broken.

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