Most lives contain their fair share of contradictions, but nowhere is this more striking than among people who work in politics or the oil industry, where compromises and rationalizations are standard practice. And few conflicts in contemporary literature are as stark as those competing for dominance within Bunny Glenn, the protagonist of Mobility, Lydia Kiesling’s smart, complex follow-up to her 2018 debut, The Golden State.
To see contradictions play out to their fullest, one needs to view a life over many years. Kiesling does a generous service to Bunny by dramatizing her event-filled life over more than five decades, from the late days of the Clinton administration to a cautionary epilogue set in 2051.
In 1998, Bunny—her real name is Elizabeth—is a well-traveled 15-year-old living in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where her father, Ted, is a diplomat in the foreign service. This could be an exciting experience for a teenager, but Bunny’s an old hand after her father’s previous postings in Yerevan, Armenia, and Athens, Greece. She’s more interested in reading Cosmopolitan, drinking vodka and performing “ministrations to her face and teeth that would increase her odds of driving a man, any man, a particular man, wild.”
Bunny gradually figures out her place in a complex world, from her relationship to her Texas family, including mother Maryellen, who gave up her flight attendant career; to her interactions with classmates at her prestigious boarding school; to finally her own career, which begins in 2009 with a temp job at an engineering firm and progresses to more substantial positions at a consultancy dedicated to investing in clean forms of energy—decisions that have professional as well as personal ramifications.
At times, Kiesling is more interested in verisimilitude than narrative momentum, with long passages on the politics of the day. But readers in the market for a present-day mix of droll political insight reminiscent of the British sitcom “Yes Minister” or Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels will warm to the book’s style. And Kiesling does a nice job of highlighting rationalizations that sometimes define American life, such as for people who work for oil companies despite their conflicted feelings because they need the health insurance, or environmentalists who vacation by flying in airplanes that burn leaded fuel. Mobility is a forward-thinking book about old-fashioned themes of money, politics and family. And that’s no contradiction.