The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When the reclusive, elderly and utterly glamorous Hollywood screen idol of last century, Evelyn Hugo, invites an obscure journalist, Monique Grant, to write an exclusive story about her for a magazine, little does Grant – or her employer – know what she’s agreed to do. A fading star who captivated audiences and the public with her films and the gossipy stories of her many husbands, affairs, the terrible losses and magnificent successes she survived, Hugo is still an enigma to many. The chance to put the record straight once and for all is, for Monique, too good to be true.

Struggling with personal issues, Monique nonetheless is flattered and seizes the opportunity being given to her, only, as the days go by and Hugo’s incredible tale unfolds, she also wonders why, of all those who could have written this story, she has been chosen. What possible reason could this powerful, intelligent woman, with fox-cunning and an unapologetic knack of always getting what she wants, have for choosing her?

Taking Monique and thus the reader back to her childhood in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, Hugo’s story is breath-taking in its audacity, courage and chutzpah. Beautiful, mildly talented, but knowing how to use the gifts she’s been given to forge ahead, and not caring what others think, Hugo’s tale is as much about female subordination, patriarchy, the Hollywood star-system, sex, sexuality, beauty, ageing, power and its abuses, as it is about a woman learning to navigate a life for herself and those she loves through this.

Taking heed of Hugo’s story, Monique finds herself alternately touched and inspired, inspired to use the lessons Hugo’s imparting to improve her own life. But when she learns the truth behind the story, about why she was chosen to write it, it threatens to unravel not only what she thought she knew about the actress, but about herself as well.

This is an easy, terrific read that takes you back in time on one woman’s remarkable and not always easy to stomach journey. The hurdles and prejudices she overcomes, the way in which men particularly underestimate her and others, the choices she bravely makes, and the hard decisions she stands by are compelling reading. Not always easy to like, it is easy to fall in love with Evelyn Hugo – the hard, wise, and always compassionate woman – even when at her hardest and most selfish. Terrible things were written and thought about the beautiful starlet, but none were as bad, raw or honest as what she wants Monique to write now.

Question is, can Monique do the woman justice? Especially once the truth is revealed…

Great escapist read.

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