God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Foster Alyson

12 responses to “God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

  1. Brian Joseph

    I tend to like Epistolary novels. The situations and characters sound good in this one. I like the literary potential of a email relationships.

    Interesting that you characterize this as a light read. On the surface I am thinking that Foster could have made this a real serious one.

    • By light, I mean that you don’t have to think too hard about anything–although there’s a bit of guesswork since we only get one side of the conversation.

  2. Jonathan

    I find epistolary novels a big turn off and for that reason I don’t think I’ll ever read Les Liaisons dangereuses. I even think twice about reading a novel when it starts off with a letter or two. So a novel of emails? As you mention though, they don’t always read like real emails which is the sort of thing that makes me wonder why the author would hamper themselves in that way. Why not write a novel that contains emails and normal prose?

    I think that a lot of modern technology ruins plot lines in books and films but I do often wonder whether there is any modern fiction (say in the last ten years) that embraces it without it being a gimmick. Do you know of any?

    • Although this was well-written, or perhaps because of that, I would like to see this author’s next novel w/o this construction. I think that we are destined to see novels composed of e-mails though due to the times, and I’m not put off by the idea at all. Plus I don’t mind trying something off my beaten paths occasionally. As long as there are no vampires.

  3. I love epistolary novels and what became of them in our age, so I’m pretty sure I’d like this. I find the choice to make this one sided interesting. It mimicks, less and epistolary novel, than a collection of letters like we have them from some famous writers. Occasionally, the answers are lost.
    And it’s maybe less repetitive and more interesting if you have to read between the lines.

    • Yes, it’s interesting because Jess will write something to Arthur and then she gets a response (which we don’t see) and then her heading back will read something like, for example
      re: Insane.

      I liked it.

  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    I’d definitely like to read this one. I find one-sided epistolary novels very intriguing – they have me wondering all the way through what the person they’re addressed to thinks.

  5. “God is an astronaut” I love that. I can imagine my son saying that after reflecting on how to reconcile the idea of God with his interest for science.

    I like epistolary novels. (and light reads when I’m travelling) People predicted the end of writing as a means of communication but emails proved them wrong.

    • You’d like this, I think Emma. I thought it was hilarious the way that Jess through her ferocity & all her frustrations into the greenhouse. At least she was productive.

  6. I don’t have a view on the form per se, save to say that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read.

    My concern here was captured by you when you said “but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all.” I was having precisely that thought when you said that. Lines like ” Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.” really don’t sound to me like an email exchange, particularly from a woman to a male colleague (most women I suspect prefer not to lead their colleagues to imagine them half-naked).

    That’s a problem because the reason the epistolary novel has fallen away in my view is because lengthy epistolary exchanges have fallen away. In Liaisons the characters were precisely the kind of people who would enter into that kind of correspondence, in that sense it was a fairly realist novel. Now though, who does that? We have phones.

    The epistolary novel is for me a novel born of certain technological possibilities and constraints. Maintaining it feels in most circumstances deeply artificial, because we don’t maintain those kinds of correspondences that the technology of the time once drove us to.

    The absence of the responses is interesting though, because that immediately raises issues of her reliability as a narrator.

  7. She addresses comments that he makes, so while she doesn’t parrot back what he writes, you can read between the lines through her responses–although I’ll admit at first I wondered if she was some sort of stalker.

    Good point on the letter writing these days. We’ll be getting novels full of mis-spelled text messages and emoticons.

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