Book: Chemicals by Erica Crockett
Age/Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Suspense
Preferred Reading Environment: The bathtub, of course.
Reading Accoutrements: A snack that you wouldn’t want to live without if the world went into chaos.
Content Notes: Ableism, Drug usage, Chronic Illness, Death
When I found Chemicals by Erica Crockett, I was so intrigued by the idea of an America where the pharmaceutical industry has been attacked – leaving most people without medicine – that I didn’t even notice the author was from Boise, which is close to where I live. Upon closer inspection, I noticed not only the author’s location, but the fact that this copy is signed, which I think is pretty cool!
Chemicals starts with Aberdeen waking up to an asthma attack, finding her inhaler low, and, after recovering, deciding to get some fresh air and walk to her new pharmacy for a refill. Upon arrival, she notices a crowd looting the pharmacy store. She goes in to see what’s going on, and eventually learns that most of America’s medical supply warehouses have been bombed by terrorists.
We then follow Aberdeen over several months, watching her interact with neighbors, helping them when she can. We see the struggles that she and her husband, Hurt, face: from lack of funds and rising prices, to coping with fear and uncertainty, to dealing with unsavory characters profiting off of other people’s misfortunes. I want to tell you more about the plot and characters, but because of how the story unfolds, this book is pretty susceptible to spoilers. Aberdeen helps her neighbors quite a bit, forming a connection with a young ten-year-old named Louis who adds a lot of heart to the book. Her interactions with her neighbor in a wheelchair (he remains unnamed for a large part of the book) also show a lot about Aberdeen herself. She even gets closely involved with some drug dealers, which is where a large part of the suspense comes in. I thought that the conclusion left a couple of loose ends, but because the book brings up problems that don’t have easy solutions, I feel like that was inevitable.
I really enjoyed Chemicals. I thought it was an interesting look into a situation that is not at all unimaginable. The terrorist motivations in this book were very reminiscent of actual terrorist attacks. People’s reactions were also very realistic. A ton of characters are more afraid of “the crazies” who no longer have access to medication than of the cartels who are actively terrorizing people and monopolizing the scant medical supply available.
While the premise was realistic, I had a couple of qualms – some more in-depth than others – that tended to pull me out of the story. My most superficial complaint is the name of Aberdeen’s husband. I do not understand why the author chose to name a prominent character – in a novel where illness and injuries are discussed at length – Hurt. It distracted me every single time I saw it, and toward the end, he even makes a joke about how he’s hurt and Hurt. It’s too overt to be clever, and like I said, very distracting. I had to re-read most sentences with his name, because my mind was automatically putting “hurt” in its usual context.
Another thing I didn’t love was Aberdeen’s obsession with having a baby. Before the terrorist attacks, Aberdeen and Hurt had a fight because they had agreed on not wanting kids and Aberdeen changed her mind. Throughout the book, even though she’s pretty cognizant of the danger they are living in and how careful they have to be, she focuses on the fact that Hurt doesn’t want kids. She even wishes for the condom to break during sex once. This isn’t a terrible plot point, but I feel like it wasn’t contextualized quite enough to hit home. She never thinks about certain reasons she wants kids or parts of it she would enjoy, she just has this vague “aching in her womb.” Even when her husband points out what a bad idea kids would be under current circumstances, she doesn’t really acknowledge the point. Her desire has no reasoning or basis in reality. I know desires can work that way, but I feel like she might have been a stronger character if this desire was explored rather than just touched on over and over.
Chemicals centers around medication and how much people rely on it. I have to admit, reading this kind of made me want to hoard cheap medical supplies like bleach, cotton, and antiseptic just in case some sort of apocalypse comes around any time soon. Aberdeen has asthma, which she has to cope with daily, and the idea that her inhaler will run out is a recurring point of stress. One of her neighbors has diabetes, while another is in a wheelchair. Seeing the different relationships with medication is really interesting. Many characters, including Aberdeen, express disdain and fear of people who rely on medication to stay sane. For the most part, I feel like this is illustrative of bias, but there are definitely moments where I think that some inherent bias seeps through. I don’t know how people who take medication for their mental wellness would feel about the depiction; there are definitely parts that seem better than others. I don’t know if Crockett utilized sensitivity readers for this novel, but this seems like the type of book where they would be imperative.
Overall, the writing is really engaging and Aberdeen is an interesting character. She is sure of herself, but questions a lot. She naturally reaches out to help others, but has boundaries with how far she will go, unless the person is one she’s taken under her wing. She makes selfish decisions, and admits when she does so. She’s very human, and I found her pretty relatable, even when I didn’t like her specific choices or reasoning. Basically, she’s a typical unlikely hero protagonist caught in an apocalyptic situation, which fit the scenario really well.
Chemicals was Crockett’s debut novel, and I’m definitely interested in reading more.
While I was checking out information on Erica Crockett for this review, I found that the first book in her Blood Zodiac series is free on Kindle right now, so that’s going on my “to-read” list.
Even though I thought this premise was realistic given the current state of medication and pharmaceuticals in the United States (and other countries), I didn’t find Chemicals overly depressing. Aberdeen’s attitude toward the scenario is largely “we’ll make it until we don’t” and the overall tone of the book followed suit. If you enjoy apocalyptic reads, I think you’ll enjoy this one, and if you haven’t read very many, this could be a light-but-still-serious introduction.
Do you enjoy apocalyptic fiction? Does it get you thinking about how you’d survive if the world was turned upside down? Share your favorite prepper tip (or the contents of your zombie apocalypse bug out bag) in the comments below!