Blue Skies: A Novel

Image of Blue Skies: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“for all its dramatically dystopian setup and sensuous descriptions, this novel falls surprisingly flat.”

T. C. Boyle is an award-winning, bestselling writer of tremendous energy and creativity who’s not afraid to go where a reader fears he’ll tread. For instance, as Ottilie Cullen, one of the three narrators of Blue Skies, tries to navigate through a Florida hurricane late at night, she realizes that the “thick brown slurry” on which she is driving her rented SUV is actually thousands of catfish that “squirted and popped under the wheels.”

But for all its dramatically dystopian setup and sensuous descriptions, this novel falls surprisingly flat. The plot often sags, and the characters are largely unlikable. The main problem may be that Boyle, in his 31st book of fiction, has chosen too easy a target for satire: the ways people have caused and now deal with climate change.

Blue Skies takes place apparently a few years from today. Covid is still a fresh memory, Florida is inundated with constant rain and floods, California is withering in nonstop drought and winter temperatures in the 90s, and almost all the bugs on the planet have abruptly disappeared. “It was as if the bones of the earth had been laid bare and the windblown future would never cover them again,” Ottilie thinks.

Ottilie seems the most sympathetic member of the extended Cullen family that’s at the center of the story, the one with the most backbone and common sense. In a pinch, she pulls through—literally: Scavenging “a blistered paint-peeled rowboat,” she pulls the oars to get her pregnant daughter Cat to the hospital during a Category 2 hurricane. Of course she’s painted in extremes, raising crickets to replace more traditional meat in gourmet grillons poeles roti and fretting about finding a “down-to-earth caterer” for a water-saving beachside wedding, but at least she means well.

The crickets are due to the influence of Ottilie’s son, Cooper. Teased as “bug boy” when he was in junior high school, Cooper happily embraces that label in adulthood to become an entomologist.

Are his increasingly dire warnings about climate change meant to be satirical? It’s not clear. “Latest long-range forecast is for another catastrophically dry winter in a state that’s already in exceptional drought, and what terminology are they going to come up with next—exceptionally exceptional?” he snaps at his father’s retirement party. Early in the book, his right arm is amputated at the elbow after he is bitten by a MRSA-carrying tick. Moreover, climate change has rendered his unfinished PhD dissertation on butterflies pretty much worthless. So he can be forgiven for becoming an embittered couch potato, but he’s still not very likable.

By far the most annoying of the narrators is Cat. The novel begins with her purchasing a dangerous Burmese python to drape around her shoulders as a fashion accessory, because she thinks the photos will boost her social media ranking.

Blue Skies is an off-and-on page-turner for the first two-thirds of the book. However, after a harrowing but much-foreshadowed plot twist, it drags until close to the end. Is it slogged down by the incessant rain of Florida, or desiccated by California’s leaden drought? Either way, the reader gets the point.