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‘Bomb Shelter’ Review: Mary Laura Philpott Balances Life, Death, Humor, and Trauma in New Essay Novel

4 Stars

The cover of "Bomb Shelter" by Mary Laura Philpott.
The cover of "Bomb Shelter" by Mary Laura Philpott. By Courtesy of Atria Books
By Divya N. Navani, Contributing Writer

Mary Laura Philpott is no stranger to introducing her readers to her relationship with adulthood via essays. In her first compilation, “I Miss You When I Blink,” Philpott explores her journey of breaking free from the traditional mundane path of adulthood and reinventing herself into the person she is today.

In “Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives,” Philpott takes the readers one step further and one step deeper into her world than her previous novel. She hones in on her worries surrounding motherhood, her fears about life and death, and the overall anxieties that spiral within her. And she does so by bouncing back-and-forth between the story of her son’s life-threatening seizure and various mundane events that seem almost painfully insignificant compared to the former. “Bomb Shelter” is a much darker and more profound novel than readers have seen from Philpott before. By letting her humorous personality and honesty drive the narrative, Philpott honors her trauma, anxiety, grief, fears, and, most importantly, her hopes, while inspiring readers to do the same.

Perhaps the most intriguing appeal to the novel is how blunt Philpott is. She combines a childlike quality of not having a “filter” with the serious content of adult life’s trials and tribulations, which makes for a jarring but humorous contrast. Perhaps the quote that best encompasses the spirit of the entire novel is revealed within the first few chapters: “When you are a child who believes your brain can keep planes from crashing, it’s imaginative and precocious. When you’re an adult who thinks your own churning mind is what keeps everything safe, it’s called anxious.” Philpott is brutally honest about these small moments that so many people can relate to but never say out loud.

At times, however, it could be a little jarring to go from an essay on how her son could not recognize himself after his seizure to an essay about how meditation apps don’t actually calm people down as much as they provide an escape from difficult emotions. The humorous latter essay seems almost like a trifling concern compared to the harrowing trauma of the former. And the entire novel follows this contrast between the extreme and the mundane. But Philpott, using this method, adds a kind of raw and real balance to the novel. She shows that life truly is a compilation of small moments that teach us some pretty big lessons. Philpott ultimately conveys that life requires a balance between the “Bomb” and the “Shelter.”

Furthermore, the pace of the novel is rather rapid and keeps the reader on their feet for the entirety of the journey. Each essay is short enough to be read in minutes and, just when the reader thinks they’re deeply invested in the content, Philpott switches gears into an entirely new subject matter and the cycle begins again. Philpott never lets the reader remain content nor comfortable in their reading experience. Each story, each essay, each page is like a ticking time bomb leaving the reader wondering not only when the story will switch to something entirely different but also wondering what happens next in the stories that the reader leaves behind.

The best part about this book is that it truly appeals to all ages. Kids will recognize the childlike nature of the novels and Philpott’s Scrooge-like humor, young adults will appreciate the book’s fast pace reminiscent of social media algorithms, and adults will appreciate Philpott’s honest humanity. She doesn’t pretend to have everything figured out; Philpott is real and raw, and her writing resembles that in every way.

“Bomb Shelter” is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the people who know heartbreak, anxiety, trauma, nostalgia, grief, and loss like the back of their hand. Philpott shows the world that she has been there and she has found hope and strength through her writing. And through laughing and crying with Philpott as the pages turn, so will the reader.

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