I recently joined Penguin Publishing’s program called First To Read, which allows reviewers and bloggers to read books before they come out. The first book I’ve read through the program is The Wanderers, a literary fiction novel by Meg Howrey that comes out on March 14. Here’s my review.
The book is about three astronauts who complete a 17-month “test run” of a Mars landing, which feels very realistic and serves the purpose of telling the ground team how they will fare physically and mentally during their real trip to Mars. It’s an audition of sorts, and if the team can prove that they’ll work well together and can handle the long confinement, then they’ll be the team that will go for real.
I’ll start with what I liked. The depth of the characters felt very real—they had wonderfully vivid thought lives, which made the book come alive. I also really enjoyed the turns of phrase the author used—she had some very clever piques and sayings she added that made me smile.
That said, I mostly didn’t like this book. Here’s what the book doesn’t do: It doesn’t take the reader to Mars. It takes the reader on a 17-month pretend trip to Mars, during which the astronauts are all trying to act like it’s real when everyone knows it actually isn’t real. It’s like the author was trying to write The Martian, but without any of the interesting action and only the introspection.
The writing felt stiff, despite the good turns of phrase, and this is probably due to the minimal use of contractions. I can understand minimal contractions from characters like Yoshi and Sergi (the Japanese and Russian astronauts), for whom English is a second or third language. But in the thoughts and conversations of the American characters, it felt stiff and unrealistic.
I also thought there were too many points of view. Having POVs from the three astronauts is fine, but the author tried to focus on too many characters in depth, and as a result, none of them had their own voice. They all had the same voice, but with different thoughts.
Another critique, stemming from this, is that the setting felt off for this type of introspective book. People who read about humans going to Mars want a little action, and this book was so introspective that it felt slow the whole time. If the setting were different—for example, instead of having 7 different POVs, the book took the form of letters between two sets of characters—it might have worked better for the setting of Mars training. As is, though, it just felt slow.
Do I recommend this book? No. For someone who wants a good space book, read The Martian, which is excellent in every aspect. For a really good introspective novel, try any of Marilynne Robinson’s works, especially Gilead.