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  • Writer's pictureJanna Zonder

What A Wonderful World This Could Be

I found it impossible to hurry through Lee Zacharias' What A Wonderful World This Could Be. I kept stopping to mark passages so I could go back later to savor and dig deeper into their specificity, their nuance, their beauty, and their deeply layered meanings.

Zacharias' use of language is broad and infused with a lifetime of observation and study. She is both an author and a photographer, and you see her eye for detail in her writing. She gives you the full picture, background and foreground, emotional context, mood, and the space to fill in your own perceptions.

"He had a quick temper, but was slow to show it; she recognized it only in a slight prickle in the air, an almost imperceptible compression of his jaw, the way his cheekbones seemed to flatten, the bracing at the back of his eyes." Don't we all recognize these subtle cues that tell us someone we love is angry, but how many of us could articulate the physical expression of it so perfectly?

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1960s to 1982. The main character, Alex, is the daughter of narcissistic, neglectful, divorced parents. As a teenager, she's bright, talented, and terribly lonely. She falls in love with a 27-year-old man, a photographer enamored with photographing her, who eventually becomes her lover, her friend, and her mentor. According to Alex, what he wanted from her in the beginning was ". . . the record of the light she happened to bend."

In 1982, when the book opens, Alex has grown up and is a professor of photography contemplating an affair with a student. Her husband Ted has been missing for eleven years. Alex and Ted had been at the center of a collective of mostly white college activists awakening to racial injustice. Ted was its charismatic leader, and the group believed if they cared enough, and worked hard enough, they could bring about change. At some point, through both external and internal forces, they self-destruct. The group succumbs to radicalization, advocates violence, and attracts the attention of the FBI. Ted disappears along with a few other members, leaving Alex to once again deal with the loneliness of abandonment.

As Alex tells us through inner monologue, the collective " . . . believed rare courage was a thing you could bless yourself with . . . more precious is the courage it takes to go on living in a world you discover you haven't been granted the power to change."

We tend to think of the civil rights movement in stereotypical language: courageous, idealistic, super humans, plugging away at the power structure. What A Wonderful World This Could Be is a complex book with flawed, conflicted characters and a unique perspective into the world of 1960s America. The story bends and weaves through time, through internal and external landscapes, while the plot pulls the reader steadily along to a satisfying conclusion.

If you love a literary book with rich writing set in a fascinating time in history, this book is for you! Here's a link to Zacharias website with more information and links where you can buy the book.

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Catherine Smith
Catherine Smith
Oct 26, 2021

I'm intrigued! Thanks for sharing this review. I will add it to my list for sure!


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