Book Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher (2.5 Stars)
Vox is a modern retelling of the Handmaids Tale with a twist. Dr. Jean McClellan is living in a new world, and it’s a quiet one. At least it is for her and her daughter. After the United States is overtaken by the “Pure Movement,” a fundamentalist Christian political movement, women are only allowed to speak 100 words a day. But when Dr. McClellan’s research is needed to save the President’s brother, she’s given a break from her newly enforced domestic life and silence in order to save him (reluctantly, of course). Vox is a retelling of a familiar trope with new ideas, solid writing, and good character development. However, I often felt like it was a story I’d read before and felt that the novel itself didn’t have anything “new” to say about the world. While it was disturbing to read the slow progression of the “Pure Movement,” it wasn’t shocking like it was meant to be. This concept has simply been beaten to death in fiction.
Dalcher does a good job of showing the slow process of indoctrination and how people are radicalized. Jean’s oldest son, Steven, is a good foil for his mother’s character, constantly presenting the logic behind his radicalization in an eerily understandable way. Steven is a character that we all know and could imagine talking to at the kitchen table. When he brings home his new AP course book, Fundamentals of Modern Christian Philosophy, his mother is right to be disturbed, but he doesn’t see it that way. He just sees it as his ticket to college. Dalcher is smart to use Jean’s children as a way to show the changing world around her. Her youngest daughter, Sonia (who is arguably the most unique and important character in the novel), is a constant illustration of the Pure Movement’s progress. At one point, Sonia wins an award for having the lowest word count in her class and is incredibly proud of her achievement. It makes the reader think about how we learn our beliefs and the way that society functions young.
Another interesting character throughout the novel is her husband, Patrick, who you can’t help but dislike from the beginning. Jean struggles with “not hating” the men in her life, but Patrick is clearly awful. The novel talks a lot about the idea of being a bystander to injustice and bigotry, and even though the reader’s understanding of Patrick’s character evolves throughout the novel, he still isn’t great. Vox illustrates how well-meaning people become ‘bad’ people when they do nothing to fight against systems of oppression. Jean comes to see Patrick as “weak” for refusing to stand up to the system, even when he’s Science Adviser to the President. Jackie, Jean’s estranged friend from college, is the opposite of Patrick. A radical women’s activist, Jean often regrets snubbing their relationship and wishes that she would have been more politically involved. She acknowledges that she should have done more from the beginning, all the way back in college with Jackie.
This novel does a good job of showing the different kinds of people in a political environment. Jackie (the radical, politically active feminist who sees what’s coming before everyone else), Jean (the person who didn’t used to care, but now does because things have gotten so bad), Patrick (the bystander), Steven (the radical indoctrination), and Sonia (the innocent victim). The other characters in the novel function somewhere in between that spectrum, but each character has a distinct function to show the reader something different about how people would act/do act in an increasingly radical situation. Other important characters include her co-worker and Italian lover Lorenzo and her co-worker Lin. Lorenzo and Jean’s love affair feels a little too close to Nick from the Handmaid’s Tale. I wasn’t overly interested in this plot point. As for Lin, I genuinely liked her character and her description. It was interesting to see how the new world of the novel impacted another woman. The same goes for the King family, Jean’s next door neighbors. The King’s were a good addition to the novel. Olivia King’s downfall after her daughter, Julia, is caught having sex with Steven was a good plot point that added to the depth of the situation. To see Olivia King, a “Pure Woman,” be destroyed and oppressed by her own movement showed that even women who joined the cause are punished just for being women.
There were some things about this novel that just didn’t work for me. To be honest, Patrick’s involvement in the government as a plot point was just too convenient. One of the main problems I had with the world of the novel was how ‘close’ everything seemed. How big is this new country supposed to be? People that Jean knows are regularly on National TV being mocked for their “sins.” Are there really that few people committing these crimes? It seems wrong and unlikely that they shame every single person on TV. Another thing that was a bit too coincidental was Jean’s mother having a brain aneurysm in the same place that she specializes in. That seemed rather unnecessary to the plot and happened at a moment in the novel when I felt like there was enough to sustain it already. Lastly, I felt that Jean’s pregnancy was also an unnecessary add-on to the novel. The main character’s involvement in creating the serum and her family life are enough to sustain the book without all of the other complications thrown in. There were other things that didn’t really work for me, like at the very ending with an unnecessary run-in with a chimpanzee, and the little things really took away from the novel. It also takes 200 pages for the main character to make the big discovery of the novel, which was a little bit too drawn out for me.
In the end, Vox has an exciting ending meant for a much longer book. Its finale is too conclusive and wrapped up for everything that happens over its 326 pages. While Patrick redeems himself in the end and all of the main characters end up happy, the ending seems a little too good to be true. Vox has strong points and quotable lines, but almost all of them could have been written into the Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is incredibly focused on making a political point about America in 2019 and is at times a bit too pointed for a fiction novel. Nevertheless, it does have stronger points and good writing, especially in the voice of the main character. But when I read the back cover, I was slightly turned off by the fact that the author’s biography sounds a lot like the description of Jean. It makes me wonder how much of the novel is good character writing and how much of it was the author writing herself.
Read This Book If You Liked: The Handmaids Tale (or just read the Handmaid’s Tale instead) or the Power (this book is much better). You Also might like works by Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit.
Read This Book For/This Book is Good For: A book group, a feminist studies class, or a gift to a Trump supporter
“Evil Triumphs when good men do nothing. That’s what they say, right?” (192)
“As of two minutes ago, my name isn’t Jean. My name is thief. Or Traitor, I think, and wonder what sort of punishment Reverend Carl and his pack of Pure Men might have set aside for subversives.” (199)
“There were so many times I wanted to blame him, but I can’t. Monsters aren’t born, ever. They’re made, piece by piece and limb by limb, artificial creations of madmen who like the misguided Frankenstein, always think they know better.” (216)
“You can start small, Jeanie.” She said, “Attend some rallies, hand out flyers, talks to a few people about issues. You don’t have to change the world all by yourself, you know.” (152)
“Everything lately seems to be a choice between degrees of hate.” (99)
The ending, 317
Her Son, 281
Major Realization of the Novel, 201
Olivia King pt. 2, 189
Julia King, 146
Patrick Sucks, 60
NEXT: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari