We Are Unprepared is more about relationships than catastrophe, but it is the catastrophe that reifies the flaws in those relationships, fracturing marriages, families, and communities. What is special, though, about We Are Unprepared is the all too likely nature of the catastrophe. We are in the era of the superstorm already, we just have not admitted it yet.
The story is told be Ash, who moved to the small Vermont village of Isole with his mercurial and fascinating wife Pia. They are deeply in love and are finally living their dream of a a country home where they can grow their own food and get back to natural living. It’s all very hip and modern, though, he’s tele-commuting, still doing graphic design for the firm he founded and sold. Pia is a talented artist, though unable to find commercial success as she keeps changing direction, her interests shifting constantly.
Their idyll in the country is short-lived, though, as the government announces the coming of a series of storms and the likelihood of a superstorm unlike anything they had ever experienced. Warming oceans have increased precipitation and the violence of storms and if hurricanes from the south collide with blizzards from the north, the outcome could be cataclysmic.
Ash and Pia’s reactions to the storm diverge. Pia turns to the Preppers, their paranoia appealing to her while repelling Ash. He turns to traditional civic engagement, volunteerism, and, in Pia’s eyes, the authoritarians. They conflict, too, over the neighbor boy, an endearing child whose neglectful parents are too engrossed in themselves to pay attention to their needy son. Ash wants to foster young August and Pia wants to prep, tend her worms, and prep some more with no other responsibilities. Where they had once been so closely aligned, Pia and Ash are now in complete opposition. Can their relationship withstand the storm when the preparation for it is driving a wedge between them? Will it fracture or heal their marriage?
As a new resident of Isole, Ash feels a bit of a neutral observer of the fissures and cracks in the community that the storm magnifies. Some people turn to religion, others to paranoia and prepping, and others to traditional civic engagement. Ash throws his lot in with the latter, but nonetheless, in these conflicts, he realizes this town that is a refuge for him is a trap for those in poverty who lack the resources to escape through education and better jobs elsewhere.
I liked this book. I liked most of the people in the book. Reilly has the gift of empathy, a compassionate understanding of even those people whose reactions endanger others and contribute to the breakdown of community. She understands how fear can impair people’s judgment. She understands, too, that love endures, even when the object of love fails us.
We Are Unprepared is just too plausible for comfort. We have seen with our own eyes the increasingly violent and catastrophic storms brought on by the rising ocean temperatures. Superstorm Sandy did $65 billion in damage and the conditions that brought on Sandy have only gotten worse. While Meg Little Reilly does not mention man-made climate change, attempting to avoid partisan divide over her book, the subtext is clear. We are on the way to catastrophe and we are unprepared.