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Reviews of The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes

The Alternatives

A Novel

by Caoilinn Hughes

The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes X
The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes
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  • Published:
    Apr 2024, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jo-Anne Blanco
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the writer Anthony Doerr calls "a massive talent," the story of four brilliant Irish sisters, orphaned in childhood, who scramble to reconnect when the oldest disappears into the Irish countryside.

The Flattery sisters were plunged prematurely into adulthood when their parents died in tragic circumstances. Now in their thirties—all single, all with PhDs—they are each attempting to do meaningful work in a rapidly foundering world. The four lead disparate, distanced lives, from classrooms in Connecticut to ritzy catering gigs in London's Notting Hill, until one day their oldest sister, a geologist haunted by a terrible awareness of the earth's future, abruptly vanishes from her work and home. Together for the first time in years, the Flatterys descend on the Irish countryside in search of a sister who doesn't want to be found. Sheltered in a derelict bungalow, they reach into their common past, confronting both old wounds and a desperately uncertain future.

Warm, fiercely witty, and unexpectedly hopeful, The Alternatives is an unforgettable portrait of a family perched on our collective precipice, told by one of Ireland's most gifted storytellers.

part one


The air is mild for October. Nothing shivers. Nothing smokes. A gentle westerly whistles at the panes of the lab windows like an unwelcome uncle, determined to raise the hairs on some young neck. Twenty necks bend to observe the experiment: a Perspex prism known as the "squeeze‑box"—the size of a narrow aquarium—is filled with thin layers of colored sand. The ends of the box are movable, so that its contents can be compressed to demonstrate the effects of tectonic convergence.

Thrusts. Faults. Folds. Belts. Excuse me. Olwen presses a fist to her mouth to stifle a burp, and a few students snicker. Lo and behold: geologic processes for the puny human attention span.

There is something very bodily about Olwen Flattery that the undergraduates find wildly amusing. Moments earlier, she'd used a shard of slate to scratch her inner elbow psoriasis, and a puff of dead skin particles danced visibly in the ventilation. She placed the shard back in its tray and, with her ...

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BookBrowse Review


One stormy night, Olwen leaves her life behind, disappearing without a trace or explanation of any kind. After several months of hearing nothing from her, the other three sisters take time out from their careers to reunite in Ireland and try to find her. Unusual, thoughtful, and erudite, The Alternatives is a sprawling and densely packed novel encompassing a broad spectrum of themes: environmentalism, displacement, immigration, integration, interconnection, political upheaval, mental health, social care; also fate, free will, nature, and nurture. Albeit meanderingly, the novel chronicles with poignancy the journeys of the Flattery sisters toward recovery, reflexivity, and learning to cope as well as care...continued

Full Review Members Only (692 words)

(Reviewed by Jo-Anne Blanco).

Media Reviews

Each sister's voice is clear, purposeful, realistic and hopeful... . [the novel] becomes even more engaging as their stories overlap, growing increasingly complex and intertwined... . Hughes balances ordinary details with those that surprise and raise the stakes, keeping the reader hooked.

Brooklyn Rail
At the center of the novel is a question: what does it mean to center one's work on slowing our collective hurtling toward destruction?... . This is a powerful and timely novel.

Electric Literature
Funny, intelligent, tenderhearted, and aching... . Hughes is one of the greatest writers of dialogue at work today. She is peerless in her ability to develop and communicate complex ideas through witty banter and possesses remarkable range in her ability to write across various points of view. Her sentences are to be relished... . We need more writers like Hughes.

New York Times Book Review
Exuberant... . to categorize this novel into a tidy box undermines the daring genius of its author... . Hughes's prose is like a virtuosic jazz number — loose, free and surprising... . A bold, beautiful, complex novel.

Shelf Awareness
Yet another example of [Hughes's] gift for illuminating the dark places in the lives of dysfunctional, but deeply sympathetic, families... . [A] bighearted, wise, and frequently sharply funny novel.

The Alternatives contains multitudes. Its mysteries and complexities reward a second reading... [its] ending is a stunner. And Olwen, Maeve, Nell and Rhona make it unforgettable.

Real Simple
Told with biting wit and warmhearted insight, The Alternatives by award-winning Irish author Caoilinn Hughes reflects our collective yearning to make sense of our lives.

Wall Street Journal
The novel begins with alternating chapters that sharply delve into each woman's life and work in brief, fascinating lectures on subjects from land subsidence to locavorism... . Ultimately The Alternatives is concerned with the duties of caring for the planet and one's loved ones. The fact that these responsibilities are often in conflict makes this lively novel's sense of confusion feel well-earned.

Booklist (starred review)
Simply brilliant... . The dynamics of the sisters' interactions and the easy way they anticipate each others' needs while slipping into decades-old roles are the novel's highlights.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Intelligent, impassioned, and wholly satisfying.

Library Journal
Intriguing....Readers will enjoy this story about the need for family, independence, and support.

Publishers Weekly
The inconsistent tone can be jarring, but Hughes shines when weaving the dense intellectual material of the three academic sisters' work into their dialogue.

Author Blurb Hernan Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Trust
I wish I knew how Caoilinn Hughes has managed to write a book of such depth and gravity that is also so gripping and relentlessly funny. A tale about sisterhood, a novel of ideas, a chronicle of our collective follies, a requiem for our agonizing species, The Alternatives unfolds in a prose full of gorgeous surprises and glows with intelligence, compassion, and beauty.

Author Blurb Louise Kennedy, author of Trespasses
Caoilinn Hughes is one of the most intelligent, surprising, and delightful writers around. The Alternatives made me laugh, cry, and think. Any one of the Flattery sisters would have made a compelling story; together they are glorious, as is this novel.

Author Blurb Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind
Caoilinn Hughes's beautiful new novel uses a fairy-tale premise—four sisters, orphaned in their youth, each brilliant in her own way—to explore some of the most pressing issues of our time: the environment, politics, and how to live in the world. The Alternatives is both a book of ideas and a gripping read, formally audacious yet deeply humane. Superb.

Reader Reviews


Great Read- Entertaining and Thought Provoking
I loved this book! It is smart, witty, entertaining, and thought provoking. The characters’ knowledge and passion for the topics of earth science, philosophy, democratic process, and food scarcity were educational and thought provoking. The banter ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Queens of Rock: Women in Geology

Black and white photo of geologist Alice Wilson holding a chiselIn Caoilinn Hughes' The Alternatives, Olwen is a geologist profoundly concerned with the effects of climate change. As in other sciences, women remain underrepresented in geology, even though they have been very much part of its development over the centuries.

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a scholar of precious stones, to which she referred in her theological and scientific writings. Martine de Bertereau (1600-1642) traveled with her husband to survey mines, used divining rods to locate minerals and water deposits, and was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, tragically dying in prison. Nevertheless, women geologists persisted, and the 19th century saw an increase in female scientists for whom this area of study became a ...

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