Book Review – When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica
Are quarterly book reviews going to become a thing on this blog? I don’t know. But for the second quarter in a row, I’m reviewing a book for the blog. In the first quarter of this year, I reviewed “10:04” by Ben Lerner. This quarter, I picked up another book that gave me mixed feelings, this one being “When the Lights Go Out” by Mary Kubica.
“When the Lights Go Out” tells the story of two women — Jessie Sloane and her mother Eden. Eden’s story is mostly told in flashbacks while Jessie’s story is present day, dealing with the experience and aftermath associated with Eden’s death from cancer. To properly understand how I feel about this book, I feel it’s best to explore it much in the way the book is written. That is, to look at Jessie’s story versus Eden’s story. Spoilers ahead.
I’m going to get the lone thing I dislike about Jessie’s part of the story out of the way right away. “When the Lights Go Out” goes the full St. Elsewhere route1 with 85% of Jessie’s story. Jessie’s story was all in her mind — a terrifying dream induced by a combination of sleep deprivation, sleeping pills, and melatonin.
That said, what a beautifully written descent into madness Jessie’s dream sequence story was. The way Kubica wrote the hallucinations and mental tangents that come with sleep deprivation was captivating. Since the story changed points of view regularly, there would be gaps of time where I wasn’t able to read what was going on with Jessie. Whenever that was happening, I found myself desperately wanting to come back to it because of how interesting it was. How much more could Jessie take before she finally snapped? Even the chapter where she finally realizes she was actually dreaming was beautifully done, taking several pages before you’re able to realize that she’s not actually dead, rather struggling to come out of a medication-induced slumber.
The non-dream parts of Jessie’s story serve more as context than anything else. Though they’re not as interesting as the slow mental deterioration that was her dream self, they’re still useful in tying the story together. Jessie’s story feels natural and gripping, even when the reader can’t fully associate with it. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I read the book’s synopsis online.
So I’m writing an end of the year book ranking/review post, much like I did last year. In reviewing a different book I read, I talk about how difficult it can be to make a bad guy type character as a focal point of your novel, as it makes you want to root against them. It can be done well, though books that make the bad guy your main character and still tell a compelling story are few and far between.
I don’t think the intent was for Eden to be the bad guy of “When the Lights Go Out”. She is clearly meant to be a flawed character, one who only shows any sort of redemption in death. That said, it is very clear throughout the book that Eden is not a good person. She is a good mother at the expense of being a terrible human in pretty much every other facet of her life. Her obcession with motherhood bordered on maniacal. And when I say obcession, I don’t mean she really cared about her kids or had a yearning desire to be a mom. I mean she actively attempted child abduction in an effort to become a mom, only to be stopped because the child’s mom happened to catch her.
Paired against Jessie’s dive into madness, Eden’s story felt cold and cruel. While it certainly added to how much I was rooting for Jessie to find herself — much as Eden suggests for her to do — it made me want to get through the majority of Eden’s chapters even quicker. Though there is an attempt at salvaging her character over the last 4-5 chapters of the book, the damage is irreperable.
All in all, “When the Lights Go Out” is an interesting suspense read. If the story solely focused on Jessie horrifying mental struggles, it could have easily been a top three book I’ve read this year. If the story stayed with Eden, I likely would have given up on the book before the halfway point. As it stands, “When the Lights Go Out” will likely land somewhere on the middle of my year end list. It’s a good suspense read, but only if you can put up with half of your book focusing on a terrible person trying to be passed off as somewhat sympathetic. If you can, the story told about Jessie Sloane is something special.