The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens

5/5 stars

It strikes me that there are fewer private moments now. There is a great race on, really. The goal is to gather your own impressions before someone else can tell you what you saw, what you are seeing. To be the consumer rather than the consumed.

The Exhibition of Persephone Q, Jessi Jezewska Stevens, page 188

Jessi Jezewska Stevens, are you living in my brain?

That might sound like a bit too aggressive an introduction, but as I got into this book I felt like it had been written for me, especially with its New York post-9/11 setting and a plot that hinges on contemporary art. Prose that feels so unsettlingly perfect it’s like I dreamt it. And much like the protagonist of this spectacular novel, I feel a bit like I’m being watched.

Our narrator, Percy, is a newlywed in Morningside Heights, is pregnant and trying to fill her time with domestic duties as her husband toils on a perpetually-unfinished thesis at a cryptic internet-advert company. The mystery begins when she recieves an exhibition catalogue–The Exhibition of Persephone Q–filled with photo collages that are clearly of her. She believes they were taken by a former fiance who she hasn’t been in contact with for a decade. But were they? What results is a fantastic, theory-focused novel with meditations on personal identity and privacy at the dawn of the social media age, when people first began realising they could Google themselves. Reading this in an era when ‘revenge porn’ laws are on the books and people now make their money posting their entire lives online, this makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

This book made me long for New York–I want to live inside this book, even with the post-9/11 setting. Stevens’ descriptions of the neighbourhoods, the dimly lit shops in Chelsea, I ate it all up. I think this book functions as a great companion to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, capturing a very specific time in the city’s history and culture. The descriptions of the gallery and the titular photos are transportive, so vivid this feels like a real exhibition I just happened to miss.

Some of the characters feel underdeveloped–this is a book where things kind of happen at the main character, and if it doesn’t manage to hook you initially, you’d probably struggle to get through it. There are some plot threads that fall loose, but I’m willing to overlook them in this case. As our lives are moving into new mediums, The Exhibition of Persephone Q poses important and worthwhile questions, and definitely isn’t worth skipping.

The Exhibition of Persephone Q on

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