Doxology by Nell Zink: A review

I have read several books this year that have dealt in some way, at times just tangentially, with the 2016 presidential election. And now here's Nell Zink's contribution to the oeuvre, although that portion of her story comes at the end of a fairly long novel dealing with the history of American politics and culture beginning in the late 1980s, as experienced by two fairly clueless young people who moved individually to New York City from different parts of the country.

Pamela grew up in an upper-middle-class white family in Washington, D.C. She had all the privilege that such an upbringing entails, but as she neared the end of her high school years, she rebelled against the plans her parents had for her. She did not want to go to any of the colleges they suggested; she had a different vision for her life. And so she packed a few things, took what money she could scrape together, and took off to New York to pursue her vision. She had no contact with her parents after that for many years.

Daniel came from a fundamentalist Christian family in the Midwest. He managed to complete college before he fled, but he, too, made his way to New York and the two young people met there through another friend that Pamela had made, Joe Harris, who was destined to become a rock star.

The three of them are devoted to music and they play together in small, anonymous bands before Joe becomes famous. Pamela and Daniel become lovers during this period and eventually, an accidental pregnancy changes their lives. They decide to marry and when their daughter, Flora, is born, the three of them together raise her during her early years with Joe providing babysitting when the parents are at work.

During this time Joe continues to pursue his musical career with Daniel as "manager" and finally he hits the big time and starts raking in the big bucks. Then comes 9/11 and everything changes.

Pamela and Daniel are concerned for their young daughter living in the toxic air that has enveloped New York in the wake of the attacks. Pamela contacts her parents and asks to come for a visit. They take Flora there and they are all joyfully welcomed. After some time Pamela and Daniel return to New York, but they leave Flora with the grandparents and there she stays for the rest of her upbringing, occasionally making visits to New York to stay with her parents. (Why the parents so easily agreed to this is one of the mysteries unsolved by the narrative.) The remainder of the story focuses on Flora.

She grows up with a fervor to save the planet. She attends George Washington University and pursues her interest in climate change and soil erosion. She becomes increasingly politicized and, when no other jobs present themselves, in 2016 she joins the Green Party candidate Jill Stein's campaign. She knows that the campaign is a joke, but of course, it can pose no threat to Hillary Clinton and she just needs to build her résumé.

Flora meets two men on the campaign trail who are destined to impact her life. The first is a cynical middle-aged Democratic strategist who understands clearly the existential threat that the Republican candidate poses. The second is a young idealistic former Sanders supporter, now a staffer on the Clinton campaign. 

I don't want to give away the entire plot here. Zink's novel is a very ambitious and wide-ranging delineation of the events of the 1980s up to the current day. And mostly, I think she delivers on her objectives. I found the first part of the novel dealing with Daniel and Pamela more compelling, but that may have been only because I found it easier to identify with them. The story lost some of its steam for me in its second half, but, on the whole, the author dealt with the madness of our political times with intelligence and humor and she has produced a very good and readable book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. Wonderful review! I've heard so many fantastic things about this book. I'm glad you liked it but it kinda stinks it lost some steam in the middle.

    1. That was my impression. Another reader might view it differently. But, all in all, it was a terrific read.

  2. This sounds very good. I am a bit of a political junkie so I would find that part interesting. The characters also sound well crafted and the plot seems interesting.

    Super review.

    1. Character development is one of the strong points of the novel and politics figures prominently in the second half of the book. Yes, I think it is something that a political junkie might enjoy.

  3. I have not yet read Nell Zink though I have had her books on my TBR. I think I will start with this one. What a brilliant idea for a novel of ideas!

    1. The first part of the book deals with the culture of indie bands playing small gigs in the '80s and '90s before Joe Harris' career took off. I think you will be able to appreciate those sections even more than I did.


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