Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release date: September 24 2013
Source: e-ARC via Edelweiss
In a word: Beautifully descriptive writing, a feisty but unemotional heroine, some tense moments that made my heart beat faster, but ultimately weak world-building that made the story less enjoyable.
Stebbs had unknowingly put Lucy in Lynn’s own bed, and so she laid down in Mother’s cot, surprised at the waft of scent that enveloped her as she slid under the blankets. Mother’s smell was there, the outline of her body still imprinted on the mattress. Lynn fit into it nicely, and watched over Lucy while she slept.
When the cover was first revealed for Not a Drop to Drink, I was ecstatic. It is still one of my favorites this year and evokes a feeling of desolation and dread, and I was thrilled when I was approved on Edelweiss to read it. But I was so taken with the cover that I expected the story within to speak to me just as strongly, and unfortunately it didn’t. While Not a Drop to Drink is beautifully written, and the relationships between the characters are well developed, I found so many holes and undeveloped ideas in the story that it tainted my overall reaction to the book. What could have been an excellent tale of survival and tenacity of the human spirit, instead left me with many unanswered questions, and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to completely enjoy it. And unfortunately, through no fault of the book, it came right on the heels of two of the best books I’ve read so far this year (Vicious and Kinslayer).
Lynn and her mother live in the basement of a ramshackle house beside a pond, defending their only water source with their very lives. Lynn’s entire life has been this way so she’s grown up learning how to shoot and kill anything that comes near the pond, including people. When they aren’t surveying their surroundings from the roof, rifles at the ready, they are painstakingly collecting and purifying the pond water, watching as the water level slowly recedes. When Lynn’s mother is killed in a terrible accident, Lynn is forced to leave her pond and venture into the unknown, and things get really complicated when a young girl named Lucy, her uncle Eli, and an old man named Stebbs invade Lynn’s orderly and controlled life.
I want to begin by telling you the things that I really enjoyed about this book. McGinnis’ writing is beautiful and spare, and it clearly evokes a sense of place (although that “place” is never really explained, and I’ll talk about that later in more detail). I loved her descriptions of the open land around them, the many wild animals they encounter on their property, and the evocative details of the changing weather and how their very survival depends on these changes. I could picture their daily lives very clearly, the ongoing struggle to survive in a world where water is the most precious commodity there is, and danger lies around every corner.
I also loved many of the relationships between the characters. Lynn’s mother is a harsh woman who rarely shows emotion, but you can see the love she has for Lynn every time she teaches her something. When Lucy comes into the picture, she steals the show with her innocence and buoyant nature. Lucy has come from the city, and remembers when life was easier, when water actually flowed through pipes. She and Lynn develop a sweet relationship, and even though Lynn is still a teenager, she has motherly feelings toward Lucy and begins to treat her like a daughter.
Lynn was one of the best drawn characters, and although she isn’t that likeable (she rarely shows any emotion at all, even when her mother dies), I understood why she acted the way she did. Because she’s had so little socialization with others, she has no idea how to behave. Once she meets Stebbs and Eli, she is introduced to all kinds of new ideas and feelings, and you can see her growth as she tries on new ideas.
Not all of the characters worked for me, however. Eli, the romantic interest in the story, came across as weak, and I could not figure out why Lynn was attracted to him. In my opinion he played such a small part that the author could have left him out completely and I wouldn’t have minded. Likewise, Lucy’s mother Neva was mostly off stage, and while the characters talked about her a lot, she was rarely present. Her one dramatic moment left me puzzled, mostly because of the unemotional responses of the other characters.
I think the weakest part of this story is the world-building. It just wasn’t developed enough to make sense, and at times it almost felt tacked-on to an otherwise engaging survival story. I had so many questions that were never answered, and there were many things about this post-apocalyptic world that just didn’t add up. For example, why was Lynn so determined to guard her pond when there was a stream nearby? She feels threatened by the “Streamers,” people who are camped by the stream, but why should she worry about them when they have their own water supply? When Stebbs reveals that he is a diviner and can locate underground water sources, I was hoping that this fascinating ability would turn into an exciting part of the plot. But unfortunately this story line is never explored, and Stebbs’ unusual ability is dropped like a hot poker and forgotten.
Even more perplexing was the question of why water is in short supply to begin with. Lucy manages to fill in some of the blanks, but it happens mid-way through the story. I almost think this would have worked better if the author had taken the post-apocalyptic elements out completely and simply made this a down-and-dirty tale of survival in the wild. She briefly mentions things like “population schedules” and the “Second War for Oil” that suggest the story takes place far in the future, but these ideas are never really explained.
Not a Drop to Drink had some wonderfully poignant moments, like the way Lynn quotes lines of poetry that her mother taught her, and the lovely detail of a lost bucket beneath the pond’s surface that marks the ever-diminishing water line of the pond. I wanted more moments like these, and less of the sketchy and confusing reasons of why everyone is fighting over water. McGinnis chose a huge subject to tackle, and I think in the end it pulled her under.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. You can find Not a Drop to Drink here: