... a novel that makes for propulsive reading despite having relatively little forward motion, its plot tending less to arc than—pace critic Jane Alison—to meander and spiral, then explode ... Stevens’s vivid, swerving sentences stage bracing dramas ... For some writers, a terrorist attack and an unplanned pregnancy would be enough narrative fodder for a spare, lyrical novel composed largely of interiority. Not for Stevens, who packs in a crash course in art history; asides about the early internet’s false promises of freedom and anonymity; a New York coming-of-age story; and a supporting cast that includes a self-help author, a psychic, and a neighbor who disappears. Unsurprisingly, keeping all these people occupied leads to a couple of cul-de-sac subplots and some surfeits of quirk. But I admire that Stevens is willing to take risks, and—crucially—all her highest-stakes gambles pay off ... The Exhibition of Persephone Q is a resonant and uncanny novel ... Jessi Jezewska Stevens is a promising, persuasive new writer, and I will be surprised if this doesn’t turn out to be one of the strongest debut novels of 2020.
Stevens’s writing proves that both time and technology are best understood in retrospect, sequences made logical long after each moment has passed. The novel has a romantic slowness, unfurling gracefully, little by little, to show how quickly the present gives way to the future, or concedes to the past. A book about newlyweds is almost by necessity also a book about breakups ... Always a little too early or a little too late, Percy is caught between anticipation and dread; she knows only that change might come suddenly, or it might come slowly, but either way she will have to recognize what’s right in front of her face.
... a short, meandering book ... one waits for [Percy] to run into someone special or happen upon an epiphany that snaps her out of this benumbed state. But when such a revelation comes, Percy hardly changes at all ... She only considers herself ... Percy's solipsism is undoubtedly one of Stevens' main preoccupations, but it's also the book's biggest weakness ... Persephone Q is in many ways a character study of a woman who refuses to settle, much less coalesce into a compelling character. 'I never love where I am, I would always rather be somewhere else,' Percy says. It's much to the novel's detriment that we'd often rather be somewhere else, too, and with someone else ... Percy, for all her quirks and navel-gazing, is ultimately a dull and impassive character. Only she finds herself interesting, or at least wants to ... Persephone Q is a little bundle of curiosities with limited appeal. Stevens' prose style is promising – this is clearly the work of a talented writer – and yet much of the writing is stunted by an odd, dreamy formality that reeks of an MFA workshop. It's not Percy's flatness that fails the book, but her lack of perspective.
Is it, as the exhibition catalog [in the book] contends, 'a profound exploration of privacy, memory, and the instability of truth'? Or is it all a somewhat random muddle from a debut writer prone to mistaking weirdness for profundity? I lean toward the latter. Though Ms. Stevens conjures a tantalizing vision of the city at night—a murky, unreal space, like Persephone’s underworld—her story is too slight to make the setting meaningful. We follow Percy as she wanders around, buys kitchen appliances, chats with neighbors or drafts emails to her perfidious fiancé. There’s a narcoleptic quality to her commentary ... Ms. Stevens uses it to break up continuous action, as though Percy is constantly dozing off for a second or two as she moves through the world. The novel resembles one of those dreams in which you are trying to run but your legs feel stuck in quicksand. However curious and intriguingly symbolic the dream may be, it’s a relief to wake up.
Stevens spins a bizarre, ghostly story in a bizarre, ghostly New York, flickering with memories and hallucinations ... [The protagonist's] story is one many women will find familiar ... Unusually enough, Stevens—who has a BA in mathematics—analyzes these abstract issues with heavy technicality. It’s an unorthodox choice, and tricky at first, but it soon becomes clear that no other style could fully encapsulate Percy’s story ... Stevens has combined the surreal with the actual to create a book painfully relevant to this new age of female testimony. Persephone Q deals dexterously with the theme of the Muse. Anyone, she teaches us, can make a woman into whatever they’d like her to be ... leaves us at the tail end of a crucial moment, one that perhaps could’ve been developed to a cleaner resolution. But in all other aspects, Stevens has written a fantastic debut that asks more questions than it gives explanations. The reader may see herself in nearly every facet of Percy, whether or not there are any similarities to be drawn. The protagonist we envision after following Percy’s story can never be the exact one that Stevens designed.
... puzzling ... Percy’s internal monolog travels with her, but despite her many references to Web 1.0, such as Earthlink, AOL, Napster, and, inexplicably, Boolean logic, it doesn’t feel like the early 2000s it’s said to be ... Percy’s perspective is so limited and her world so small that readers who don’t identify with her may lose patience. This book’s primary audience will be those interested in the ruminations of an insecure young woman trying to find her way in the world.
Percy is a quirky and vivid narrator who feels an immense anxiety and malaise in the face of the ‘nebula’ growing inside her ... Stevens’ debut is a compelling and visually rich novel that explores alienation in all its forms. The book’s poetic language and realistically absurd characters will keep readers intrigued until the final page.
... a delicate and drifting exploration of Percy’s relationships with friends, lovers, neighbors, and the many not-quite strangers who form the fabric of city life. As Percy wanders, New York itself is reflected through the prism of her many identities in luminous prose that captures the essence of a place in the middle of its most defining transformation ... A stellar debut.
... striking, unique ... The 9/11 aspect is unnecessary, but the plot is often fascinating and the reader will race to the end to figure out what, exactly, will happen to Percy. Stevens is a talented writer, and her debut is a propulsive experience.