Review: ‘But Not for Long’ by Michelle Wildgen

by Kim on April 12, 2011 · 18 comments

Post image for Review: ‘But Not for Long’ by Michelle Wildgen

Title: But Not for Long
Author: Michelle Wildgen
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: A gift from a friend for Christmas.
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: “What if the apocalypse comes gently, this memorable book asks, not with a bang or blaze but with the silence of refrigerators no longer buzzing and the ‘fuzzy dandelions of candlelight floating past the curtains’?” — Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, The New York Times Book Review.

One Sentence Review: Wildgen’s book is set in a slightly unfamiliar Madison which was one if the most interesting aspects for me, but leaves me unsure about what others might think of the book.

Long Review: There’s something deliciously unsettling about reading a book set in the place where you live, especially a book that takes the reality of the world and shifts it slightly to one side, creating a setting that’s almost sinister in its uncomfortable familiarity.

That was the strange feeling I had while reading Michelle Wildgen’s 2010 novel But Not for Long, which is set in a slightly-off Madison that was both familiar and unusual. The book is set in Madison’s co-op culture, with three roommates — Greta, Hal, and Karin:

Greta has left her old life behind and moved into a sustainable foods co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. Just as she begins to settle in with her two housemates, the husband she left behind appears on their porch, drunk. His arrival begins a dark three-day period during which all three residents of the house will have to reckon with a disquietude lurking under the surface of their little society. A series of summer blackouts, gas shortages, and an ominous disappearance will force them all out into a larger world that seems everywhere on the verge of crisis.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the setting of an off-kilter Madison. Wildgen did an amazing job of getting many of the details about Madison right — the hippie culture, the political activism and idealism, the lakes and streams and sense of place. And because she did such a great job characterizing Madison, the ways in which she disrupts the community feel even more eerie.

Despite the quietly apocalyptic setting, this book is very much about the characters. It’s a look at how people respond to the kinds of situations that shake up the everyday but that don’t seem to have an explanation. I’m not sure that I related to Hal, Greta, or Karin, but that didn’t really matter to me. They felt like real people, people who try hard and make mistakes and just want to make their lives work.

Those two factors came together to make a book that I really enjoyed. I’m still not sure about what Wildgren was necessarily trying to do, the message of the book, but I’m still thinking about it, and that’s a quality I appreciate in fiction.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenna April 12, 2011 at 7:23 am

Great review! Sounds like the author did a good job not letting such a spectacular event take over the entire story. In some post-apocalyptic fiction, it seems like the characters are an afterthought.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Jenna: Yes, I think that’s true. In this case, the idea of an apocalypse was not even mentioned in the text — it’s an idea I pulled from the quote and that sticks with me after reading it.

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Jen - Devourer of Books April 12, 2011 at 11:42 am

I do like books that keep me thinking. If the Madison thing ever ends up happening, I’ll definitely have to check this one out.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Jen: This would be a fun book to read right before coming to Madison. I think the huge setting is a part of why I enjoyed it.

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Anastasia April 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I like how the apocalyptic part is sneaking up quietly rather than going full-blown right from the outset. It’s almost scarier if it happens so gradually you barely even notice it.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Anastasia: Definitely. And this book has some especially creepy parts in that so much of what happens seems possible — rising gas, power outages, that sort of thing.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) April 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I know what you mean about a book that is set in a place that’s familiar to you. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

bermudaonion: I am too! It was an unexpected pleasure to read.

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Jenny April 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm

I’m so much better with dramatic apocalypses than quiet ones. Quiet apocalypses, where the grocery stores are out of water and bread, and everyone is taping their windows and running their generators, remind me of hurricanes and get me all stressed. :(

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Jenny: There is something really unsettling about a quiet downfall, especially with all the rising gas prices and unemployment that are happening now. Creepy!

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Jeanne April 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Not with a bang, but a whimper, eh? This sounds like a nice twist on the genre to me.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Jeanne: That’s exactly what I was thinking of :) It was a nice twist; I enjoyed it a lot.

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Trisha April 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm

It is really cool to read a book set where you live, especially if the author gets it right!

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Trisha: I like seeing moves set where I live as well — it’s so funny to see what’s done right and wrong!

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S. Krishna April 13, 2011 at 7:34 am

Books that make me think are something I appreciate as well. Nice review!

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm

S. Krishna: Thanks! I’m still pondering about parts of this one, and I like it.

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Belle Wong April 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I think the quietly apocalyptic ones are scarier reads, actually. Marries it more to real life.

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Kim April 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Belle: I think they’re much scarier. I found this much more unsettling than most apocalypse or post-apocalyptic stories.

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