***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: A well-written coming-of-age story set in near-apocalyptic Ohio, this book is rarely action-packed, but more of a sparely-told personal journey about learning to accept friendship and love when you've never experienced it before.
I feel sorry for literary fantasy authors. Readers of speculative fiction are often not prepared to see the deeper emotions and themes that the author is trying to convey. Many readers will have expectations that aren't satisfied, and the book will garner some undeserved two- and three-star reviews from people who never caught on to what it's really about. Looking at the goodreads reviews of Not a Drop to Drink, it seems that Ms. McGinnis suffered a bit of this prejudice. For example, one reader said, "[Lynn] was a solid character during the first 1/3 of the novel but I had issues with how she changed as the book progressed." The reader objected to the small bit of romance, and Lynn's blossoming maternal instincts. In fact, Lynn's personal change is the book, and her growth is slowly realized, which is nice.
There was a fascinating bit of developmental psychology in the way Lynn's view of the world is shaped so completely by her mother, and by the things her mother has taught her. Her only brief contact with another human being before her mother's death is Stebbs, when she was six years old and his foot was mangled by an animal trap. Even then, she had little contact with him, hearing only muffled conversations through the basement floor as he convalesced. We therefore believe, as Lynn does, the absolute necessity of constant surveillance of their pond property and the killing of anyone who comes near. Shoot first, ask questions later. Lynn's mom has done a bang-up job of keeping her daughter alive and teaching her survival skills (hunting, purifying water, planting gardens, canning food, not to mention marksmanship), but there's something...missing. There's no true warmth or affection, no touching or comforting between this mother and daughter. Lynn doesn't even know her mother's first name until Stebbs uses it. We get hints at Lauren's devotion--for instance when Lynn was sick with a fever as a child and recalls her mother's emotion and vigilance during her illness. But for Lauren the world is made up solely of her daughter, Lynn, of human and animal predators, and of two men who have disappointed her, and in her mind you have to defend what's yours no matter what it takes. Lauren's teachings are also the first in a series of commentaries the book makes on sexual violence. Lauren has taught Lynn to fear all men, without explaining to her what is implicit in the threat: rape.
Lynn's growth. Three events contribute to Lynn's emotional growth in the book: the way she slowly begins to allow Stebbs to become "family" after her mother dies; her "adoption" of five-year-old Lucy, despite her initial reluctance; and her budding romance with Eli. For me, the relationships were successful by degrees in that order, too. The way Stebbs tentatively approached Lynn by leaving a note on the boulder was so tender and cautious and understanding, once you knew the entire history between him and Lynn's mother. The way Lynn began the relationship with her mother's prejudice ("asshole") but slowly allowed herself to rely on Stebbs's at-arm's-distance companionship, and then outright enjoy his company, felt like genuine growth. Similarly, Lucy was initially an unwanted responsibility for her, and then a gift after that, and it was rewarding to see Lynn not make the same mistakes her mother did--at first by instinct (listening to Lucy and not shooting the traveler was a turning point for Lynn) and later by deliberate choice (e.g. allowing the treat of cocoa for no special reason). And as for Eli? The best part about that relationship was how believably "city" Eli was, and how much he had to learn. He wasn't as good at taking care of himself as Lynn was, and that never changed in the book, although he became quite competent. The romance was not terribly passionate, and their chemistry a little bland, but unlike a few other readers I do think a first love was necessary to the plot--to complete Lynn's independence from the role model of her mother, who had shut love out of her life after Stebbs rejected her.
Sexual violence. This book is almost obsessed with sexual violence, but unfortunately without making a clear point about it. Lauren believes that all men are sexual predators, and imparts that worry to Lynn. The old town of South Bloomfield does in fact trade in both rape and bartered sexual favors--this sort of violence is actual "currency" there. Vera is raped on her way to find her daughter, Neva. Neva herself has been gang raped in the city by prison guards, and kills herself rather than be raped again later in the story. In short, there's a lot of disturbing violence toward women--some of it perpetrated by Lynn's own father, in front of her eyes. Twice we read descriptions of women with changes in their gate after being raped (one is Eli's account of Neva's rape, and the other is the young woman in South Bloomfield after Big Red "visits" her in the morning). This sort of detail feels obsessive. What does the sexual violence do for the plot other than show how hard-scrabble life is, how thoroughly degraded society is, how much the government has disintegrated in terms of protecting people? In that sense it's just an "apocalypse" tool--much the same as there being no grocery stores means that only scavenging, stealing, hunting, curing meat, and canning vegetables are left as a means of feeding yourself. In this new crazy world, raccoons come too close to people in the middle of the day, even when they're not rabid, and men rape women any chance they get.
I'm absolutely not opposed to sexual violence in books--in fact, I think it's a vital topic. I just think that in literature it has to have a thematic meaning, or an important function in the plot, in addition to being an honest and brutal portrayal of something that in fact happens in our world. In this book the sexual violence contributes to the bleakness of the environment, and to Lynn's inability to trust people, but I worried that its pervasiveness didn't help whatever discussion it was sparking. I worried that it became distractingly gratuitous.
The premise. The politics. The economics. Granted, McGinnis not much concerned with how this crisis happened--there are hints in conversations--but she's more interested in its aftermath. Water is a scarce resource, guarded and used for barter by those who stake a claim to it. But I found myself mulling over some of the political/social details on my own. It's clear that government failure and corruption are necessary for the social breakdown that has happened, but McGinnis seems to imply that these breakdowns happened because of the diminishing water supply, whereas I think they would have happened beforehand or concurrently. Her storyline goes: water became scarce; the cities controlled how much came out of the taps; prices rose; violence, dependence, overcrowding, and disease resulted; outlying areas became ignored, untenable, and lawless."
In an even halfway-functioning society, scarcity causes price and behavior changes. Think of gasoline, a finite resource, and how we pump it into our cars for only $3.50 a gallon. That oil is drilled, with massive machines and drill bits and pumps, sometimes with oceanic drilling miles below he surface of the earth, and then it's shipped in tankers to refineries that heat it and separate it, and put into trucks that drive it to gas stations all across the country where it's pumped into underground tanks. And all that happens for $3.50 a gallon--incredibly cheap at the price, when you think of the resources that have gone into getting it there. The trouble is that we expect our water to be nearly free. Our current water shortage threats often involve farming: with the wrong crops being irrigated wastefully in areas that don't have rainfall; with people living in deserts because they like the climate, and growing grass in their front yards and on their golf courses. If the only water you could irrigate with was made expensively in desalination plants, you'd quickly adjust your behavior to the prices. These are issues that a healthy society grapples with as the shortage becomes more serious. So the question becomes, why didn't this society and government make those changes? The flaw in this world isn't a lack of water--there's water everywhere, even just surrounding our protagonists--it's a failure of society and government. But as I said, these are my own thoughts. McGinnis is careful to keep things vague, because she's using the water shortge as a placeholder apocalypse--a reason for Lynn's stuntedness to exist.
Eli's death. Gruesome, sudden, and it's totally unclear to me why this is a necessary part of the plot. Also, the manner of his death is completely implausible. I'm not a firearms expert, but it takes a spark to set off a glass bottle of gasoline, doesn't it? The bullet that hit his backpack would have had to create a spark by hitting a metal buckle or something, and any incidental metal would have been on the outside of the pack, not inside. The bullet might have shattered the bottles, coating him with gas, but he would not have lit on fire. Again, like the sexual violence in the book, this scene verges on gratuitous without aiding the plot. I'm calling a penalty for unnecessary roughness.
The prose. The writing is excellent in this debut--kudos to McGinnis. It's spare and somewhat dark, but also lovely in how plainly lyrical it is. It's perfect for the setting and the story, and much more accomplished than most speculative fiction and many debuts.
Why (re)introduce Lynn's dad, bringing him in as the ultimate bad guy behind the South Bloomfield operation?
When Eli meets Lynn for only the first or second time he mentions, "...and [to think] my mom had a musician all picked out for me," implying that Lynn is now his love interest. An awkward sentiment, and too soon in their acquaintance.