Back before Audible “improved” their subscription plans and bundled podcasts in, subscribers used to receive two of their original publications each month. Sometimes there was something compelling, sometimes not, and sometimes I grabbed both several months in a row, resulting in a backlog of reading that I just didn’t get around to. This book was one of those cases. It was referenced as having an autistic character, which drew me in given that I used to work with adolescents on the spectrum, but then it just sort of digitally sat there for nearly six months before I finally got around to reading it. When I did, I found it to be one of the most compelling books I’ve experienced in years.
“When You Finish Saving the World” is written by Jesse Eisenberg, who also voices one of the characters. You’ll recognize the voice fairly immediately if you watched the tragedy that was Dawn of Justice, because Eisenberg played Lex Luthor (one of the few performances that was worth anything in that film). Eisenberg’s novella introduces us to a family: Nathan, Rachel, and their son Ziggy, and tells their stories through recordings that each makes: Nathan and Ziggy to their therapists, Rachel to her first boyfriend. This was a deeply compelling way to peel back the layers to this story, because it gave so much space to each character to reveal themselves to the reader. I felt as though I was inhabiting their thoughts and emotions, not deducing them through dialogue. In this way, the work is more of a drama that a novella, and I found it to be a fantastic storytelling device.
We enter the story through Nathan, who is struggling with his inability to connect with his newborn son, and is working through the damage that this is causing to his relationship with Rachel. The reader realizes fairly quickly that Nathan is on the spectrum. I was extremely empathetic to him through his section of the novella (each character has a section), because he is trying to so hard to overcome this challenge that is insurmountable, and he is doing so for the person that he loves. Rachel, in turn, is placing unrealistic expectations on him as he makes his efforts, and the reader finds themselves very sympathetic to Nathan’s efforts and resentful of Rachel’s pressure.
Section 2 takes us to a near future scenario, where Ziggy is now a teenager and is struggling to fit into a society that he finds frustrating and fake, and that his mother, Rachel, champions. I really like that Eisenberg used the descriptions of the future as Ziggy goes to therapy with an artificial intelligence to make some honest societal comments with a backward wave, complete with a new slang vernacular for the teenagers of the future. The discord between Nathan and Rachel has left its mark on Ziggy, who harbors a great deal of anger toward his parents but particularly resents and is angry at Rachel, whom he paints as overzealous in her attempts to save everyone from everything, which becomes a form of oppression to his life. Again, the reader leaves Ziggy’s chapters resenting Rachel.
In both of the first two sections, however, Nathan and Ziggy foreshadow our meeting Rachel by mentioning the otherwise-well-kept secret that, before meeting Nathan, Rachel’s first boyfriend died. We take this knowledge into the final section of the book, in which we meet Rachel, with whom we have grown so frustrated. We pick up Rachel’s story before she meets Nathan, with the boyfriend whose fate we already know. Rachel is compellingly performed by Kaitlyn Dever. We walk through Rachel’s backstory with trepidation, sensing that the glass is about to break, and then we end sitting with this character with whom we’ve grown so frustrated through the preceding chapters…whose hero complex we’ve watched tear down the lives of those dearest to her…and end with such a profound sympathy that I needed to walk away for a few moments after reading the closing words.
Rachel is a mess, but the reader understands why, and realizes that they would be, too.
What I love about this book is that it reinforces that everyone has experienced tragedy, that all of us have issues, and that we didn’t acquire those issues in a vacuum. The concept that the reader leaves with is one of compassion for those that we encounter every day, because we don’t know what they’ve been through, the battle they’ve fought, the losses that they’ve experienced. And, perhaps, we find ourselves less angry at their shortcomings with this in mind.
“When You Finish Saving the World” is an unexpected gift, and simply the most compelling book that I’ve read so far this year. In the midst of our subscription fatigue, it’s difficult to recommend the cost of a membership to read a book (and I deeply hate that one would have to), but this is one of those rare books that is worth going through the extra effort. Hopefully this releases in other mediums soon to become more widely available, but please do yourself a favor and read this book.
And, when you finish, think about how you treat those around you, because it will be different.