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The Cassandra (2019)

by Sharma Shields

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7813271,323 (3.21)1
"The Cassandra follows a woman who goes to work in a top secret research facility during WWII, only to be tormented by visions of what the mission will mean for humankind."--

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Stickered as "fantasy" by my library, this book combines a crucial element of Greek myth with a modern setting. Cassandra, the Greek maiden who could prophecy the future but was never believed is manifested here in Mildred Groves, a peculiar young woman who has visions of future death and destruction, but is called Mad Millie by her peers and her hateful mother and sister. She breaks away to a fresh start as a typist at the Hanford site in nearby Washington on the Columbia River. The year is 1944. Historically fascinating, this is the site where plutonium was developed for the Atom bombs that ended the war. Fictionally, Millie is personal secretary to Dr. Hall, one of the main scientists leading the project (Einstein and Fermi are also mentioned). The race is on to end the war and everyone at the site is focused on this, though most really don't know what they are part of. The fierce river and the local maddening winds were part of the choice for the site, hoping they would clean the air and water of the toxic substance. Millie begins to have visions again of what "the product" will do to the people the bomb is dropped on, and also the local people working and living near Hanford. But sworn to secrecy and loyalty as she is, there are very few people she can tell. Dr. Hall sees her as fascinating and 'wasted potential', her only friend Beth, a nurse sees her as "nervous" and also a bit of a chore - she is the one who retrieves her in her nighttime wandering visions. Others there see her as mad, but to remain at Hanford which is both her salvation and torture, she most appear "normal." In typical time fashion, Millie is encouraged to find a husband at Hanford where the men vastly outnumber the women, and two come into play: Gordon and Tom Cat. Gordon fills the ancient role of Ajax who brutally attacks Cassandra. Tom Cat is devoted, but ineffectual. Neither are the answer to Millie's status and role. This is a dark tale, full of foreboding and responsibility, and is so fascinating to consider in the knowledge of history 50 years after the fact. Supremely well-written and easily believed in its "fantasy" elements, but woeful in its outcome. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
I really struggled with this book - the premise is fascinating: a young woman who experiences glimpses of the future takes a job working for the Manhattan Project in Hanford, Washington. The secrecy surrounding the work prevents her from knowing exactly what's going on, but the nightly visions of horrors tells her its a dangerous weapon. I'm fascinated by the Manhattan Project and the atomic industry, but this book is more about this woman's struggle with her own visions and her relationships, neither of which come to a satisfying conclusion. She initially has an annoying and unkind family, which are later replaced by friends largely of the same nature. The one seemingly good friends ends up married to a rapist, so it almost seems like the moral of this novel is that good things happen to bad people and really bad things happen to good people. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Jul 20, 2019 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I'm a Sharma Shields fan after reading 'The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac', so was eagerly awaiting her next book. Here it is! I've always been aware of the Cassandra mythology - those who can see the future, whether through premonition or (or on a realistic level - logic itself), but these Cassandras never have anyone listen to what they are saying. Mildred has visions of what will happen to others from an early age and of course people call her Mad Mildred. She escapes her demanding and overbearing mother and sister to work at the mysterious Hanford site, working as a secretary for those who are working on the atomic bombs. Of course not many people at Hanford knew they were working on atomic bombs, many people doing small parts to keep things secretive. Even Mildred's visions aren't distinct. Things certainly aren't easy for Mildred, so she greatly appreciates this newfound freedom of a job, even sending her paychecks back to her family. Even if this book wasn't about atomic bombs and WWII, the book would be very dark. Mildred's story is dark, as the stories of many women throughout time. I'm not sure how relatable Mildred is to most readers in the present day, but there were hints of sentences that told me that Sharma Shields really understood the psychology of what Mildred might have went through in her trapped situation in the 1940s before she went to Hanford. I could tell Shields really knew Mildred. But then Mildred really goes off the rails and things that her sister and mother say later in the book make me question how reliable of a narrator Mildred is. So Mildred is relatable up to a point. In the end, the book seemed to be more about Mildred than her deadly premonitions, which is something that the dehumanized Mildred needed anyway but I'm not sure what the premonitions meant for the book, or even Japan, or even those at the Hanford site. But it's the dark story of the Cassandra all along: those premonitions were all for nothing. ( )
  booklove2 | May 10, 2019 |
Hugely disappointing.

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and racist and misogynist violence, including rape.)

"This—the butchery, the dripping floor—was what kingdoms of men did to one another. We were no more than instruments of hatred."

DNF at 65%.

Mildred Groves has always been haunted by visions. Actually, "haunted" is the wrong word: as terrible and disturbing as her visions are, Mildred welcomes them, like an old friend or security blanket. They make her powerful. Different. Unique. Yet they also make her an outcast, a lightening rod, a target for bullies. Turns out that people don't very much like hearing about the calamity that's about to befall them.

Things come to a head not long after the death of her beloved father. At their riverside memorial Mildred pushes her mother into the water. After this she's put on house arrest, of a sort: sentenced to take care of Mother, in all her failing health. An unemployed, friendless spinster at twenty-something. In Mildred's quest to be the perfect daughter, her visions flee soon afterward. So when she has a prophecy that she will be employed at the newly built Hanford Research Center in Washington, helping to defeat Hitler, she eagerly plans her escape.

With her strong secretarial skills and unusual mind, Millie is quickly hired as physicist Dr. Phillip Hall's secretary, where she's privy to sensitive information about "the product" they're developing at Hanford. Her escalating visions, accompanied by bouts of sleepwalking, tell her things, too: glimpses of bodies with the skin melted off, eyeballs oozing into nothing, a river choked with corpses. Yet when she questions the ethics of what they're doing at Hanford - continuing to develop a nuclear weapon even after the surrender of the German forces - she's dismissed as misguided, hysterical, or crazy. Or, worst of all: threatened with dismissal on mental health grounds, sending her straight back to Mother's depressing and oppressive home in Omak.

Part historical fiction, part reimagining of the Greek myth of Cassandra, I thoroughly expected to love The Cassandra. Unfortunately, it's just...not good.

As other reviewers have noted, the characters are all one-dimensional - especially the abusive Mother and sister Martha. They're such caricatures that I wondered for awhile if Mildred might be an unreliable narrator, but I really didn't get any confirmation of this in my reading. Like, Mother deserved to take a tumble into the Okanogan River, and then some. And yet there's no indication that anyone sees Mother and Martha's treatment of Mildred as wrong. Which in itself seems wrong. It's all just really weird and frustrating.

Ditto the rampant sexism, which is certainly appropriate for the era - but, in order to make it somewhat bearable, we need a character who questions, challenges, stands up against it. A contrast or aspiration. Mildred seems the obvious choice, and yet. Nada.

I struggled with DNF'ing this book more than most; even though I hated every minute of it, I found the plot interesting enough to want to know how the story ends. The final nail in the coffin came as I was perusing Goodreads reviews, and saw that Millie is brutally raped at the 70% point. I was 65% in, and that was it for me. I don't appreciate rape scenes to begin with, and I certainly wasn't willing to sit through one for this story.

I usually love the unpopular books - especially feminist scifi written by women - but sadly I'm with the haters here. Hard pass.

http://www.easyvegan.info/2019/03/29/the-cassandra-by-sharma-shields/ ( )
  smiteme | Mar 13, 2019 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
DNF @ 21%

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was cursed to speak prophecies that no one would ever believe. Sharma Shields’ Cassandra is a woman who also possesses the ability to prophesize and when she goes to work for the research facility that created the atomic bomb during WWII, her protestations fall on deaf ears when she tries to warn everyone of what’s to come. The plot of this one sounded fascinating and I was anxiously awaiting my opportunity to read it but unfortunately, I found Cassandra’s character to be insufferable and the rest of the characters were completely depthless. Whether or not they were developed further on in the story is a moot point since I obviously did not finish this story, however, character development is not a better late than never sort of thing and should have been done in the very beginning. The bit of story I did read left a lot to be desired plot-wise as well. Cassandra’s story lacked fluidity and felt rather like she was simply checking off boxes on a list of what she knows she does in life. Considering she’s got the gift of prophecy it’s thoroughly possible that this could have been the reason, except, Cassandra never felt like an active participant in her own life and seemed much more likely that it was the author checking off boxes instead. It was at about the point I hit this quote that I decided this just wasn’t for me:

“I admired his stridency. I wanted to bake it, to eat it like a large meat loaf so that it would enter my bloodstream and become my own.” ( )
  bonniemarjorie | Feb 28, 2019 |
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