Changing genres is hard–just ask any of the musicians who dared to “go country” over the years. But there’s no more daring jump than the one from children’s media to adult media. From Judy Garland to Britney Spears, we all know what happens when a child star has the leash let out and dares to show the world how “adult” they are now. And it happens with authors too, with Geoff Radkey’s Lights Out in Lincolnwood as the author’s first foray into adult fiction having previously written kids’ books and family films. Unfortunately, it lands with a pretty heavy, clunky, Disney-kid-does-a-nude-scene thud.
It focuses on the Altman family, living in a cushy New Jersey suburb–dad Dan who left his high-flying finance job behind to write for TV, wife Jen still struggling to make her proper return to the workforce now that her kids are in high school, perfectionist daughter Chloe and vaping slacker brother Max. Then one morning, the lights go out, and not just the lights. All electrical devices, phones, computers, even car ignitions, go bust. As the family tries to regroup, conflicts come to the surface and the entire tight-knit town of Lincolnwood has to face its demons in a time of chaos.
This book wants to be Leave the World Behind, the phenomenal race-relations-in-the-apocalypse family drama released last year that remains one of my favourite 2020 reads. The problem is that this feels a bit like if The Simpsons did a knockoff of that novel. It certainly has a lot of the hallmarks–a high-achieving daughter, a put-upon housewife, a bratty son. And a town that is chock full of ethnic and racial stereotypes. Mafia-connected pizza joints? Check. A variety of shrill demanding women with Italian or Polish last names? Check. The only characters of colour are a gas station attendant and an IT-worker dad next door, both South Asian? You betcha. And now I’m starting to wonder what shows up in Rodkey’s kids books….
Sure, having grown up in suburban New Jersey, I can certainly imagine a blackout leading to riots at the Whole Foods and anxiety about how this would affect a Dartmouth ED deadline. But the sense of place in Lights Out In Lincolnwood is awfully flawed, tarnished by one-note characters and a tone that can never quite figure out if it wants to be parody. It spends a lot of time talking about the Altman family’s various troubles, especially Jen’s alcoholism, but a lot of them feel weakly written, like an after-school-special rather than anything substantial.
And it’s just a book that never feels authentic. Some might say that’s asking too much of a book with sci-fi trappings. But that’s the thing, the best sci-fi still can feel authentic. It can have well-developed characters, strong plotting, and obstacles that clearly speak to our real-life world. It’s why Black Mirror and Children of Men feel prescient in modern-day Britain and why historians use Godzilla and King Kong to examine the past. And it’s why The Leftovers, which this book so desperately wants to be, might be the best 9/11 novel that doesn’t actually feature 9/11. So it is possible to make a sci-fi story that feels authentic and true to life while still creating a tense and thrilling plot. It’s just that Rodkey chose not to do that.
RATING: 2/5 stars
Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK for the ARC in exchange for my honest review. LIGHTS OUT IN LINCOLNWOOD (follow the link to buy on Bookshop.org) will be released in the UK on 4 October 2021.
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