I’ll be honest—I love a good survival story. That’s why I was excited to read “Aurora” by David Koepp. It’s about a huge CME, a coronal mass ejection, hitting Earth and disrupting our electrical grid. That causes complete blackouts—no heat, no cell phones, no lights, no communications. But what Koepp really gives us in this action-filled novel is much more than a survival story. He writes a story about characters with backstories and how the adversity that they face changes them. There are really two main characters, Aubrey and her brother Thomas, and it’s fascinating how they grow and change over the course of the novel, each learning from and contributing to the character development of the other.
We quickly learn that Aubrey has grown up struggling to get by. She’s smart, but she hasn’t had any breaks, and she is living with her stepson, who is actually the son of her ex-husband. Scott hates his father Rusty, and with good reason. Rusty has no redeeming qualities, and he quickly becomes one of the bad guys in the story. Aubrey, on the other hand, is kind and caring. One of her neighbors, Norman Levy, is a former professor and an extremely intelligent person. He understands the implications of the coming CME before most people do. He is also someone who cares for Aubrey and tells her, “Aubrey takes care of everyone. Who takes care of Aubrey?” He repeats these two sentences throughout the story, and we realize their truth. Aubrey does take care of everyone, but she resists any efforts by others to care for her. Especially the efforts of her billionaire brother, Thom.
We hear from Aubrey, Thom, and some of the other characters in chapters which provide the locations, but not necessarily the names, of the people the narrative will be about. The third person narration provides insight into what several of the characters are thinking and feeling. Thom is an especially interesting character because of both his success story and his relationship with his sister. We understand from the start that while Thom consistently wants to help Aubrey be safe, financially and otherwise, she has resisted that help. In fact, he wants to help her in the aftermath of the CME, but she refuses the help. We are mystified as to why, until it’s explained in the middle of the novel. At the start of the story, Thom is clearly an arrogant, entitled jerk. He is dismissive of those around him who haven’t achieved his level of wealth, and he truly believes he can buy anything and anyone. Over the course of the novel, he learns that, indeed, money cannot buy everything, and he ends up a more reflective and caring person. What is so powerful in Koepp’s narration is that Thom gets to that point not through the machinations of Aubrey or anyone else. Instead, he finally risks everything to help his sister himself—not hiring someone else to do it. And that’s a huge breakthrough for Thom.
The story is about survival during what might have been an apocalyptic event, but it’s also a thoughtful study about how people change. Additionally, it’s about what makes us rich. While Thom has four billion dollars, he’s poor in many important ways. He doesn’t have friends. His wife doesn’t love him. The people who work for him don’t like him or even respect him. Yet Aubrey, with no money and no education, is a caring person, a richer person. But she considers herself a failure because of her lack of monetary success. Her friend and neighbor Norm quotes Viktor Frankl—a noted neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor—to her and tells Aubrey that there are three things that matter: “To do work that matters to you, to care for others, and to rise to the challenge of difficult times. Work, love, courage.” He adds that “any other human pursuit is horseshit.”
As is amply demonstrated in the novel, Aubrey’s raison d’être is to care for others. She brings the residents of her small cul-de-sac together to survive. She loves her family, and, in fact, had sacrificed much for Thom. And she is rich in courage. While Thom might be unbelievably wealthy, Aubrey is rich in the ways that count. It’s a beautiful concept that rings clearly through the thrilling plot that literally takes us from one coast to the other, exploring themes regarding what might happen when the next CME hits Earth. And just for the unaware, coronal mass ejections are real. Google “The Carrington Event.” I highly recommend this book for book clubs and for anyone who enjoys novels about humanity and connections. And, of course, survival.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Harper, the publisher, for review purposes.