This book frustrated me so much, because it is so good but the detailing is just off. The writing is absolutely beautiful. The characters are lifelike and relate able. The plot is wonderful and interconnected. But the details, the details killed me. I do not believe this post-apocalypse scenario (not the plague, but the 'civilization' that springs up after.)
Ostensibly this is a book about art and how art is what makes life worth living. It follows two artists and their legacy after the end of the world. The actor Arthur Leander and the artist Miranda. Annoyingly and a bit ironically, Mandel tries to squeeze 'author' into Miranda as well, but it's clear it was always about the art in her comics and not about the writing and thus, of all the arts it feels like writing is the most ignored. Both characters meet and influence two huge characters in the post apocalypse novel, the actor Kirsten- probably the main protagonist and the antagonist the prophet, Arthur's only son. There's also an argument to be made that one of the things the novel explores is the influence of fathers as Arthur is the only real father we meet, and can be considered a surrogate father for young Kirsten when we see her in flashbacks.
But here's where we get to my annoyances. In her pursuit to show how important art is, and I'm not arguing with that premise, she forgets science. There's a secondary character, a friend of Kirsten's, who is obsessed with the science-fiction of the past and who claims he would have been a scientist if the world hadn't ended. Except when we see them searching through the remains of houses he always looks for artifacts of the fiction and never anything about the science. The only real nod to the importance of science is in the medical character who isn't a true doctor but an EMT who becomes a frontier doctor out of necessity and he's definitely a side character. I often got the impression that Mandel thinks scientific discovery started with electricity. There is SO much we can do without electricity. Yes, electricity makes it easier, but it's not necessary. I think the best example of this that I can give is the reliance on pre-collapse material for clothing, even 20 years later. Sure, I can see using it, but when Kirsten's tent finally falls apart, instead of trying to replace it with- oh I don't know- the leather skins of the deer her troupe eats, she simply moves into the tent of a fellow actor. ARRRRGGGHHHHH. It's sloppy, and ignores the many ways people created movable shelter before the invention of modern fabrics and sewing techniques.
And that right there is the crux of it all. People have been surviving and thriving without modern technology for eons. But all of those ways are ignored in favor of people living on the edge of the modern world. And I don't buy it, not 20 years after the collapse. People move on and adjust.
Also, this quote ""do farms even work without electricity and irrigation systems" is about the dumbest thing I've ever read. and from a character supposed to be a writer. As though people haven't been farming since the birth of civilization. I mean, I will say that my personal fear in the event of a civilization collapse is the prevalence of genetically engineered seed whose fruit won't produce similar offspring. But that isn't what the character said and it just reveals this level of ignorance that I think, from other hints in the book, goes to the authorial level.
Oh, and one more annoyance, birth and fertility and the way it isn't touched on at all in the novel (except in the offhand way that of course people have children). In all the ways Mandel mentions that people suffer without modern comforts, she completely neglects birth and fertility. A human woman, especially one early in her fertile years, who is having sex on a regular basis without any kind of prophylactic is going to get pregnant unless she or her partner have fertility problems. It is implied that Kirsten was sexually active for at least a few years with someone from the Symphony troupe, but there's no indication that she was taking preventative measures and yet, magically, not pregnant. Further, childbirth is a HUGE killer of women without medical advancements. Women still die in childbirth here in the US, it is now extremely rare but it does happen. And yet of all the things that are mentioned as shortening life spans, childbirth isn't one of them. It's a huge gap in the world building. I don't expect childbirth or fertility to be a major thing, but it should at least be mentioned in an offhand manner at least once.
I think I do need to state that I really did like this book. It's a wonderful look at how important art is for survival and how it influences people in different ways. I love, LOVE, the sidebar from Cliff(?)'s pre-collapse life where he interviews a woman and she expounds on the idea that a lot of people are just sleepwalking through their lives. It is a bit of a thematic two-by-four, i.e. LOOK HOW TO APPLY THIS NOVEL TO YOUR CURRENT LIFE, but it's an effective one. So much of the book is so good, which is why the disappointing bits are that much more aggravating.