The Cassandra

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 12 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

Easily one of the best novels of the year, The Cassandra takes place in the 1940s in the middle of World War II. Mildred Groves, tired of her bland existence catering to her overbearing mother, answers an ad in the paper for a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center. The Center is involved in a major project of which few people seem to know about and even more refuse to speak of. But as Mildred starts to finally leave her shell and socialize with different people, she starts having painful visions about possible future events, that leave her more broken every time. 
As Mildred's visions become worse and her life is tainted with secrets and violence, she must decide whether the truth is more important than her desire to speak out.
Sharma Shields brilliantly creates a main character and a story that is not only highly complex, but also evokes an incredible sense of empathy.
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Published by Henry Holt and Co. on February 12, 2019

The moral issues surrounding the development of atomic bombs in World War II are at the heart of The Cassandra. The central theme, however, is the way in which women’s lives were defined by men during the 1940s.

Mildred Groves has had visions of the future all her life. Since the visions are ugly, they made her unpopular and she learned to shut up about them. She is like Cassandra, a gifted prophet no one believed. Paradoxically, her gift makes her special but she wants nothing more than to be insignificant.

Mildred abandons her controlling mother and joins the Women’s Army Corps as a typist in 1944. Mildred’s mother hasn’t been well since Mildred pushed her into the river, but Mildred has had enough of her whining. Mildred leaves her small town in Central Washington to work at the Hanford Site, a newly constructed nuclear production facility. The work at the site is classified, so Mildred knows only that the workers are making an important contribution to the war effort.

Mildred’s visions become more powerful after she begins her work. She doesn’t connect the skulls and melting men in her visions to radiation, but she knows that she is seeing their future. Mildred has also started sleepwalking on perilous paths, but her new frenemy Beth is keeping an eye on her. The local doctor chalks it up to hysteria, which he regards as a common affliction of women. But how can anyone account for the coyote and rattlesnake and meadowlark who turn up to guide (or mislead) Mildred?

Mildred raises questions about soil contamination that her boss regards as impertinent for a woman to consider. He assures her that she will “go far for a woman” if she can “remain steady.” Mildred feels trivialized by everyone, even by women who work as scientists, even by Beth who seems to regard her as a puppy, adorable but simple-minded.

The Cassandra paints a sad picture of the 1940s, when women like Mildred were told they should want a husband followed by a house and children, and that employment was merely a pathway to that goal. Mildred doesn’t want the war to end, because her work gives her purpose and excitement that she never had at home.

While the story’s background is dark — women are second-class citizens, men are ravaging the environment while building a bomb that will kill millions — the plot is even darker. When Mildred becomes the victim of male violence, her experience has consequences that affect others in unexpected ways. Mildred learns the wrong lessons from her victimization — she learns to generalize her hatred — raising the question of whether Mildred will ever come to terms with her circumstances. Unfortunately, her ability to do so is complicated by the visions that haunt her. Yet the story’s ending suggests that women cannot improve their lives by becoming “vengeful, destructive, indiscriminate” — in other words, by acting like men — and that Mildred may be open to this lesson.

The story is built on ambiguities. Do Mildred's feelings for Beth include sexual attraction or simply a longing for affection? Are her visions real or is she mentally ill? While the visions seem to be real (Mildred sees future events that she probably isn’t capable of imagining), her actions near the end of the novel suggest that she has some serious mental health issues.

The story of Mildred’s job, of how she is changed by the experience of working and meeting men and living outside of her family home, and of how she responds to the knowledge that she has helped destroy millions of Japanese civilians, is compelling. The supernatural or mental health element — whatever the the conversations with a heron and rattlesnake are meant to be — detract more than they add to an otherwise strong story. To the extent that Mildred’s visions are a product of mental illness, however, it is easy to understand how she views her own violent victimization as punishment for the harm she unwittingly helped the government unleash in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The story also works as a reminder of how plutonium production at Hanford harmed the community with contaminated groundwater, rivers, and air. The site is still hazardous decades after serious cleanup efforts began. Cancers, sterility, miscarriages, and other injuries were largely ignored or denied by the government, or chalked up as the price of winning the war. The novel is dark but the darkness is appropriate to its subject matter. While I’m not sure The Cassandra is as disturbing or moving as it is meant to be, the novel illuminates important issues in the past that continue to have relevance today.

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The Cassandra is dark intense well written so well written it drew me right in each character comes alive Millie is dark fascinating an emotional read by a very talented author,#netgalley #henryholt
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I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I'm not sure why exactly it didn't work for me, and I think it might be that I just never quite warmed to the main character.
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Hugely disappointing.
 
** Trigger warning for child abuse and racist and misogynist violence, including rape. **

“This—the butchery, the dripping floor—was what kingdoms of men did to one another. We were no more than instruments of hatred.”

DNF at 65%.

Mildred Groves has always been haunted by visions. Actually, “haunted” is the wrong word: as terrible and disturbing as her visions are, Mildred welcomes them, like an old friend or security blanket. They make her powerful. Different. Unique. Yet they also make her an outcast, a lightening rod, a target for bullies. Turns out that people don’t very much like hearing about the calamity that’s about to befall them. 

Things come to a head not long after the death of her beloved father. At their riverside memorial Mildred pushes her mother into the water. After this she’s put on house arrest, of a sort: sentenced to take care of Mother, in all her failing health. An unemployed, friendless spinster at twenty-something. In Mildred’s quest to be the perfect daughter, her visions flee soon afterward. So when she has a prophecy that she will be employed at the newly built Hanford Research Center in Washington, helping to defeat Hitler, she eagerly plans her escape.

With her strong secretarial skills and unusual mind, Millie is quickly hired as physicist Dr. Phillip Hall’s secretary, where she’s privy to sensitive information about “the product” they’re developing at Hanford. Her escalating visions, accompanied by bouts of sleepwalking, tell her things, too: glimpses of bodies with the skin melted off, eyeballs oozing into nothing, a river choked with corpses. Yet when she questions the ethics of what they’re doing at Hanford – continuing to develop a nuclear weapon even after the surrender of the German forces – she’s dismissed as misguided, hysterical, or crazy. Or, worst of all: threatened with dismissal on mental health grounds, sending her straight back to Mother’s depressing and oppressive home in Omak. 

Part historical fiction, part reimagining of the Greek myth of Cassandra, I thoroughly expected to love THE CASSANDRA. Unfortunately, it’s just…not good. 

As other reviewers have noted, the characters are all one-dimensional – especially the abusive Mother and sister Martha. They’re such caricatures that I wondered for awhile if Mildred might be an unreliable narrator, but I really didn’t get any confirmation of this in my reading. Like, Mother deserved to take a tumble into the Okanogan River, and then some. And yet there’s no indication that anyone sees Mother and Martha’s treatment of Mildred as wrong. Which in itself seems wrong. It’s all just really weird and frustrating.

Ditto the rampant sexism, which is certainly appropriate for the era – but, in order to make it somewhat bearable, we need a character who questions, challenges, stands up against it. A contrast or aspiration. Mildred seems the obvious choice, and yet. Nada.

I struggled with DNF’ing this book more than most; even though I hated every minute of it, I found the plot interesting enough to want to know how the story ends. The final nail in the coffin came as I was perusing Goodreads reviews, and saw that Millie is brutally raped at the 70% point. I was 65% in, and that was it for me. I don’t appreciate rape scenes to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t willing to sit through one for this story. 

I usually love the unpopular books – especially feminist scifi written by women – but sadly I’m with the haters here. Hard pass.
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DNF @ 21%

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was cursed to speak prophecies that no one would ever believe. Sharma Shields’ Cassandra is a woman who also possesses the ability to prophesize and when she goes to work for the research facility that created the atomic bomb during WWII, her protestations fall on deaf ears when she tries to warn everyone of what’s to come. The plot of this one sounded fascinating and I was anxiously awaiting my opportunity to read it but unfortunately, I found Cassandra’s character to be insufferable and the rest of the characters were completely depthless. Whether or not they were developed further on in the story is a moot point since I obviously did not finish this story, however, character development is not a better late than never sort of thing and should have been done in the very beginning. The bit of story I did read left a lot to be desired plot-wise as well. Cassandra’s story lacked fluidity and felt rather like she was simply checking off boxes on a list of what she knows she does in life. Considering she’s got the gift of prophecy it’s thoroughly possible that this could have been the reason, except, Cassandra never felt like an active participant in her own life and seemed much more likely that it was the author checking off boxes instead. It was at about the point I hit this quote that I decided this just wasn’t for me:

“I admired his stridency. I wanted to bake it, to eat it like a large meat loaf so that it would enter my bloodstream and become my own.”

I received this book free from Library Thing in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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3.5 stars, rounded up.

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. via Netgalley for my advanced digital copy of this book!

"What did it mean to be born white in this country, to speak a language germinated not here but overseas? To infest and control but to never belong or care for, like a parasite? What horrors had we committed. what horrors did we continue to commit, to the original inhabitants?

The Cassandra is one of the most unique books I have read in a long time, and takes a much different look at the events of WWII. Mildred Groves has spent most of her life under the watchful eye of her cruel mother. She is taunted because she has visions of the future, but no one ever believes her. But then one day she leaves home to take a secretarial position at the Hanford Research Center, a huge construction camp on the banks of the Columbia River. Only the top employees know they are creating the world's first atomic bombs. Mildred feels at home for the first time until she begins having visions about the horrors Hanford's mysterious product will cause. 

Shields has written an extremely imaginary retelling of the Cassandra legend. Mildred found her way into my heart easily, and it pained me to see the way she was made fun of. I found Shields' writing to be fluid and wonderfully poetic. It was easy to become transported to the novel's setting, and it ended up being a quick read. So many horrors were committed during this time, and Mildred wears the pain on her constantly. 

The Cassnadra closely examines the cruelty of men and the ways they overtake us. I was heartbroken to see what Mildred endured, but it was inspiring to see her always remain true to herself. I did become lost in certain sections, and the ending let me down a bit. However, in the long run I don't think I could have seen it any other way. I had a very hard time formulating my thoughts on this one, but it was a powerful read nonetheless. Sharma Shields has such a unique voice and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.
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The Cassandra was engaging and interesting. I enjoyed the historical context and the creative adaptation of the classical myth, but I was not impressed with the overall flow of the book. I found myself feeling sleepy, my mind was wandering off, and I wasn't engrossed in the story. I think I liked the premise more than the actual experience of reading The Cassandra.
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The Cassandra is a book about three things - it's a retelling of the Greek myth of Cassandra the prophetess; it's a story about a very young woman trying to go to work and be more than her family thinks she can be in the 40s; and it's a piece of historical fiction about the Hanford nuclear research site. Mildred Groves flees from her role as her mother's caretaker to take a job as a secretary at Hanford on the Columbia River. She does very well in her work, but is more than ever troubled by her visions of a calamitous future. Though she finds friends here no one listens to her any more than they ever did at home.

There is a level of dread throughout this book that belies the naivity of its narrator. Of course, if the reader knows anything about WWII or the Cassandra myth, you know that dreadful things are going to happen, and Mildred is not as innocent as she seems. Mildred's rye observations on being a woman in a man's world make this novel a bit more than the sum of its parts. It's at times uncomfortable to read, but worth the struggle.
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Mildred runs away from a suffocating home with an abusive mother and sister to take a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center, a vast facility, in Washington state. The story is set in the early 1940s and follows Mildred as she settles into a place where she feels valued. "Joining that great workforce, the flimsy weight of my girlhood dropped behind me on the ground like a discarded shawl." "My whole life I'd only ever wanted to help, to be believed enough that I make a difference."

We find out that Mildred has a gift to foresee the future, but this psychic ability is also a curse. These are not specific visions but ones filled with animals, symbolism, and horror which foretells the reason why Hanford Research compound exists. As Mildred discovers what the center is making for the 'war effort,' her visions come rapidly and she blacks out. Her co-workers begin calling her 'Mad Mildred.' 

"I stayed silent, balancing the line of my mouth on a tightrope of strength and humility." 
Mildred begins to question those in power and is pulled to set back the project. 

Although this is a 'dark read' there are so many aspects I enjoyed that outweighed the intensity and some over-description in a few scenes. 

The author writes beautifully and immerses the reader into the cavern of the Hanford compound. The story is compelling and illustrates the patriarchy, the military complex, and the inhumanity of war.  Hanford Research Center was a real place that processed plutonium for use in the first atomic bombs.

This story is a retelling of a Greek myth; however, I did not rate the book on whether this adhered to the tale or not. I read the story and kept with it because it's an exciting read and well-written.  Thank you, NetGalley. Each review is an honest opinion of this reader.
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Reading THE CASSANDRA is a monumental Reading Experience. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn't turn away, I couldn't stop reading, and I thought about it all night afterwards. This literary historical novel was my first introduction to author Sharma Shields, and it "blew me away." I'd long been interested in the World War II history of Hanford, Washington, so I was excited to discover this novel, but I received far more than I expected. Not only is Sharma Shields an incredibly gifted writer, she also paints so capably the history, the individuals, and yes, "the product," the driving force and rationale for the military installation at Hanford, once a village and home of a native tribe who fished the Columbia River. Before World War II, the air there was pure and the Columbia safe from pollution. That was soon not the case. Ms. Shields very subtly draws on the damage, both to the region, to the inhabitants, to the personnel at the installation, and of course to the end result: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

    She also weaves in prophecy (hence the title), reflections on humanity as a species, and individual terms, and metaphysics and psychology. (Whether it is one or the other of those last two likely depends on one's perspective.) Protagonist Mildred Groves (her life still makes me shudder) is a plain, rather plump, young woman from a small Central Washington community, caretaker of an ailing mother. Mildred may have psychological issues (if so, that is quite understandable); or she may actually be a seer, a prophetess. In order to escape her life, she applies as a typist at the new Hanford installation, and indeed she is highly skilled in stenography and typing. However, her personality is not strong nor stable enough to withstand the constant stresses, and just as many of the men break under the constant wind if they are assigned outdoors, so does Mildred lose control of her prophesying, and just as in school, she again becomes known as "Mad Mildred." 

This is just one of the layers of this complex story. There is also rqcism, sexism, sadism, and the horrible nature of state mental hospitals, militarism, rape culture, patriarchy. Even though this is the story of one individual, it is also the story of a time, of a process, of horrifying consequences, and a prediction of a vitally bleak future for the globe. I cannot recommend highly enough THE CASSANDRA.
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I absolutely devoured this book.  At first it seems a simple coming of age type story.  Mildred wants adventure and to get out from under the control of her mother and sister.  We find she is socially awkward and a little different.  Then we find she is a lot different.  She has visions that lead her through the story.  These visions and her inability to get anyone to listen to her have shaped her life and her mind.  We are constantly, from that point on, told that we have no idea who Mildred really is.

So I couldn't put it down.  There was so much about it, quirky and hopeful and unpleasant and dark, that tears you in so many directions.  The horror of war.  The horror of being different.  The horror of men.  The horror of women.  All of them so completely connected with the Manhattan Project and the mythology of the Cassandra.    What that did to Mildred...  You sometimes really pulled for her though you were never really sure of how reliable her account of any of it could be.  Cruelty was everywhere and everyone played their parts. 

I am so glad I had the opportunity to read and review this book.  Thank you to Sharma Shields, it couldn't have always been easy to write, to the publishers, and to Netgalley for my copy.
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Are you familiar with the Cassandra myth?  If not, don't worry because it will become very clear to you early on that Mildred's story is going to be dark.  Those looking for this to mirror that tale might be disappointed or spend too much energy on comparing without enjoying- or experiencing- what is on the page here.  This is not a happy story.  Mildred's visions especially once she goes to work at Hanford are not positive.  This novel is worth reading for the descriptions of the facility but note, in advance, that it's not pretty or pleasant.  The sexual assault is disturbing.  Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to read this cautionary tale.  There's a subgenre right now of novels based on retelling of the ancients and this might appeal to those readers.  Others interested in the story of a woman coping with big challenges and weight of geopolitical issues should also give this a try.
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A secretary at a Manhattan Project site has horrible visions of the terror their work will unleash, but her warnings fall on deaf ears. 

I liked the setting and the concept behind the book, and the writing and apocalyptic visions were well done, but overall I couldn't find a whole lot to like about this book. 

Spoilers will follow. 

If you have a minimal knowledge of history, then you will know what the mysterious visions are in reference to. You will also know what will happen, and nothing the protagonist says or does will change anything. Any sort of mystery or willingness to root for the protagonist simply never materializes. This is the kind of book where things happen to the main character, not where the main character makes things happen. And as another reader on Goodreads mentioned, **SPOILERS**  the last quarter of the book leans hard into melodrama, with a violent sexual assault, a murder, self-mutilation, and institutionalization, 

I understand that the book is based on ancient Greek myth. But if this book follows the myth closely, maybe it's just not a story worth retelling.
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Writing this review hurts me a little because this was easily one of my most anticipated books of 2019, but I'm sorry, this was pretty terrible. The premise was genius: it's the story of the Greek mythological figure Cassandra retold and set at Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. But I had four main problems with The Cassandra that I just couldn't get over: characters, plot, themes, and its success (or failure rather) as an adaptation, so let's get straight into it.

Every single character in this book was one-dimensional. Within seconds of meeting Mildred (the Cassandra figure), her inexplicably awful mother and sister, her wise and worldly best friend Beth, the charming but cruel Gordon, and the pathetic but well-intentioned Tom Cat, you know what each one of their roles in this story is going to be (which has nothing to do with the myth at the heart of the narrative - more on that in a minute). Every single one of these characters is just pitifully one-note. None of their painfully obvious characterization is developed or explored or subverted, they all just exist comfortably as conduits for the story to advance where it needs to go.

Which brings us to the next problem, how the plot drives the characters and not the other way around. The book starts with Mildred relaying to the reader that she's had a vision which tells her that she needs to go to Hanford, so that's exactly what she does. She gets on the bus to head to the facility and she meets Beth, who shakes her hand and promptly declares that the two of them are going to be best friends, and that's exactly what happens. We're informed that Tom Cat falls in love with Mildred, because he just does, apparently; we don't get to see anything develop in a natural or organic way. There's no rhyme or reason to be found, the story just kind of zips along and you're meant to accept that the characters' actions makes sense even when there's no basis to any of it.

And this would all be somewhat okay if the themes were sufficiently rich and engaging, but they just weren't. Mildred starts having visions that 'the product' being developed at Hanford will wreak havoc and destroy innocent lives, but when she tries to warn the researchers, her concerns are ignored. Mildred then has to grapple with her own role in working for the facility that's developing this weapon: even as a secretary, does she hold some kind of responsibility? There's not... a whole lot of thematic depth to engage with there, despite very obvious present-day parallels, but this conflict is the main driving force in the story. And at another point, about 70% through the book, Mildred is brutally raped (as in, seriously brutal, do not enter into this book lightly), and Shields comes close to making some kind of point about how not believing Mildred about her visions has parallels to not believing women who are assaulted, but not much is really done with that opportunity.

And finally, this has to be one of the laziest myth adaptations I have ever read. There are two recognizable elements from the original story: that Cassandra can see the future and no one believes her prophecies, and that she's raped. One of my favorite things about reading retellings is trying to discern which characters played which role in the original, and of course as a contemporary writer playing with an established story you should be allowed to invent characters and subvert character types and put your own unique stamp on the story, because otherwise what's the point? But in this case, the original myth was such a rudimentary blueprint that it felt like the author wanted to use the myth only as an excuse to incorporate visions into the story without the reader questioning it too much. Mildred is Cassandra, of course (but why does Mildred get these visions in the first place? there's no backstory involving an Apollo figure to rationalize this, it's just another thing we're meant to accept), and the person who rapes Cassandra is obviously Ajax the Lesser, but do not expect many other elements from the original myth to come into play. I certainly admired Shields' research into the Hanford facility, but maybe she should have cracked open a copy of the The Oresteia while she was at it.

So, all things considered this was a pretty big disappointment. If you're looking for a contemporary reimagining of a mythological story I'd suggest Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, or if you're looking for feminist mythology there's The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or Circe by Madeline Miller. With so many fantastic mythological retellings published in the last few years, I think you can safely skip this one without missing much.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review - sorry this didn't work for me! :(
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A retelling of a Greek myth, The Cassandra introduces us to Mildred Groves and her gift of prophecy. A lifelong struggle of alienation leads Miranda to dive deep into her new job at a WWII government research facility. But, as it usually is, this dream job is not as expected. Nights of unrest and terrible nightmares, Miranda must face the consequences of her violent acts. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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Like the mythical Cassandra, Mildred has the gift of prophecy, and she is doomed to be right, but not believed.  Working at the Hanford nuclear test site, in the lead up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is no surprise that her sleeping and waking dreams are filled with horrific dreams of melting faces and bodies burned beyond recognition.
Sharma Shields gives Milly the prosaic-sounding job of secretary to a top ranking physicist at the labs.  But Milly is anything but prosaic.  She has spirit guides; wild animals morph from her dreams into reality; she sleep-walks, and wrecks havoc in the nighttime of the Eastern Washington desert.
As the date creeps closer to August, 1945, her dreams become more specific and vivid.  Her life is all a waking dream.
The Cassandra is a powerful indictment of our environmental carelessness, and a truly creepy read!

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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I've heard of Hanford and military actions/cleanup issues there and had hoped that this historical fiction book might draw more from the history side of things. I was rather disappointed in the slow pace of the book, which resulted in my lack of enthusiasm for this title.
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The Cassandra had such an interesting premise: a young woman who has very clear and graphic visions of the future is excited to leave her dysfunctional and claustrophobic family life to work as a secretary at the mysterious Hanford government research facility in Washington, but once there begins to suffer from visions of the death and destruction that will be brought about by the nuclear bombs for which Hanford is supplying the plutonium. I liked that it was a modern retelling of the Cassandra myth, having recently read and enjoyed Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a twist on the Antigone story, and I liked the World War II period setting. 

Things fell apart for me very quickly, however, starting with the fact that the characters—and most particularly the main character Mildred Groves—are not developed into believable people who draw you into the story. They are either completely one-dimensional (particularly Mildred’s harridan of a mother and a sister—characters so unsympathetic that I could never understand why Mildred would try to maintain any sort of relationship with them) or underdeveloped, like Mildred’s Hanford friend Beth, who is supposed to be her wise and sensible protector and confidante but who acts inconsistently throughout.  The biggest problem, however, is Mildred herself, an odd and unlikable character who swings from excitement and happiness to fear and distrust in a heartbeat and whose many eccentricities aren’t in the least endearing. Of her fortuitous meeting with Beth on the bus to Hanford, Mildred says, “The friendship shocked me in its immediate affection.” It shocked me, too. (And don’t even get me started on Gordon, Tom Cat and Kathy.)

The best parts of the book for me by far were the scenes of the Hanford facility. Shields does a very good job of making this vast settlement in the middle of the Washington prairie come alive with her descriptions of the campus, the dining hall, the food, and the ever persistent wind. It is obvious she did a lot of research but every time the book started to explore the actual scientific work being done at Hanford, Mildred would have another vision and we’d be off down another path—and a very weird one at that. The final quarter of the book lurches into all-out melodrama territory, with a rape, a murder, self mutilation, and a mental institution. By this time, however—and much like Mildred herself—I just wanted it to end.

I really wish I liked this more and could get behind it, but I appreciate receiving an ARC from NetGalley and Henry Holt publishers in return for my honest review.
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A stunning, heady retelling of the Cassandra story, set in a top secret research facility during WWII. A young woman's eerie visions bring her to a research facility devoted to manufacturing plutonium. But when her visions of the future intensify in nightmarish ways, Mildred finds herself questioning those in power. 

Shields' work is haunting and fast-paced--it's easy to see how Mildred's visions have shaped her life, and it's impossible to look away from her journey from outsider to cog in the machine to voice of doom. Recommended for fans of Madeline Miller's re-imagined myths, as well as for fans of speculative literature.
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