Not Your Typical Coming-of-Age Story: A Review of Nancy McCabe’s Following Disasters

At its heart, literature is about our lives, and some of the most compelling stories are about how life rarely ever turns out the way we think it will. We can plan, dream, and work, but in the end, things sometimes tend to go the way they will, regardless of our wishes. It’s fitting, then, that in Nancy McCabe’s new novel Following Disasters, she explores this notion in a deftly drawn, captivating tale that takes us places we might never expect to go.

Early on in the novel, twenty-one-year-old Maggie Owen, the main character, becomes the new owner of an old house left to her by her deceased aunt. Once Maggie moves into the house, we almost immediately begin to discover that her life is far from normal. Since finishing high school, she’s been running from her past, working in temporary insurance offices where she literally follows disasters. As to the question of what she’s running from, well, that’s the story.

In Maggie, we’re given a believable protagonist who somehow manages to be young yet world-weary, optimistic yet uncertain. Above all, she’s surprisingly authentic, a rare thing, even in character-oriented literature. For one reason or another, character types tend to conform to what we’ve read before. If you’ve seen one angst-ridden teenager, for example, chances are good you’ve seen a dump truck load of them, and the most recent one will be, unfortunately, much the same as the last.

There’s little certainty about what’s going to happen in this novel. One of the most refreshing things about Following Disasters, in fact, is the way it defies cliché and stereotype, both in story and character. The novel is partly about growing up, but it isn’t a typical coming-of-age story. It’s about grappling with the past and finding one’s place in the world, too, but even those concerns turn out to be different than we might’ve foreseen.

McCabe takes a considerable risk with the novel’s narrative, moving back and forth between Maggie’s “present,” circa-1984, her recent high-school past four years earlier, and entries from her Aunt Beth’s old diary, which Maggie has discovered in the house. It’s a tricky proposition because in some cases, one storyline may come to overshadow the others, making the secondary ones feel like less-important diversions.

The good news is there are no distractions in Following Disasters. Every story, dream, flashback, and digression belongs, and everything in the novel contributes to Maggie’s story. If there is a drawback, it’s only that the supporting storylines are so deftly woven and their characters so richly drawn that they leave me wanting to know more about these people and their stories. That’s a good problem to have.