Percy is pregnant. She hasn’t told a soul. Probably she should tell her husband―certainly she means to―but one night she wakes up to find she no longer recognizes him. Now, instead of sleeping, Percy is spending her nights taking walks through her neighborhood, all the while fretting over her marriage, her impending motherhood, and the sinister ways the city is changing.
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 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.
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.