STARRED REVIEW
March 2015

A tenacious tenant

By Jill Ciment
To describe Jill Ciment’s latest novel as the story of a supermold that colonizes a Brooklyn neighborhood and threatens to infest the entire city doesn’t even come close to doing it justice—though it’s factually accurate. Dressed in the guise of a thriller, Act of God is really a keenly intelligent story about the tangled bonds of sisterly love and the power of repentance and forgiveness.
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To describe Jill Ciment’s latest novel as the story of a supermold that colonizes a Brooklyn neighborhood and threatens to infest the entire city doesn’t even come close to doing it justice—though it’s factually accurate. Dressed in the guise of a thriller, Act of God is really a keenly intelligent story about the tangled bonds of sisterly love and the power of repentance and forgiveness.

Sixty-four-year-old twin sisters Edith and Kat Glasser share a rent-controlled apartment in a row house owned by Vida Cebu, an accomplished Shakespearean actress best known for her role in a commercial for a female sexual enhancement pill. When Edith, a retired law firm librarian, tries to enlist her landlord’s help in dealing with the phosphorescent mushroom-like growth that has sprouted in the apartment, her entreaties are ignored. Evacuation is followed by incineration, as the HAZMAT teams rush to contain the outbreak.

As her characters consider the insurance and landlord-tenant issues resulting from a conclusion that the alien growth is an act of God (“When did State Farm become religious?” Vida asks her insurance agent), Ciment orchestrates an increasingly complicated plot with consummate skill. There’s an unemployed Russian nanny who calls herself Ashley and who helps herself to rent-free accommodations in Vida’s building and elsewhere; a rekindled love affair between Kat and Frank, the building superintendent; and the existential crisis of Gladys, the Glasser sisters’ next-door-neighbor, who must figure out where she can relocate with her 17 cats in tow. It’s New York City at its most manic.

But the novel acquires real moral weight when the otherwise feckless Kat demands a penance from Vida that has nothing to do with financial compensation for the injury she’s inflicted on others by her casual indifference. Kat seeks “restorative justice”: nothing less than Vida’s acceptance of responsibility and an apology for her callousness. Watching Vida wrestle with this deceptively simple request makes us understand how hard it is to say the words, “I’m sorry.”

In fewer than 200 pages, Ciment has pulled off an admirable literary feat, creating a novel that moves at the speed of light, all the while urging us to pause and look inward.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Act of God

Act of God

By Jill Ciment
Pantheon
ISBN 9780307911704

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