Be Ready for the Lightning

by Grace O’Connell

Be Ready for the Lightning follows the narrator Veda’s life before and after a traumatic event––being trapped aboard a Manhattan bus during a violent hostage situation. The story centres around the fractious relationship between Veda, her brother, Conrad, and their core group of friends as they all attempt to approach normalcy in their lives despite addictions issues, Veda’s crippling anxiety, Conrad constantly picking fights with strangers, and things just generally not turning out the way they’d envisioned.

Throughout her story, O’Connell continually jumps back to the time on the bus to frame the plot and connect its various elements, and I think this is the core source of my dissatisfaction with the book. Right off the bat, we’re placed in the middle of the action to presumably hook the reader, but we’re presented with dissonant details from our narrator in a likely attempt to help characterize her. (This takes the form of calm asides working their way into the middle of the violence and confusion––which greatly hurt the pacing and the response the author was likely attempting to cultivate from the readers at the time––and lighthearted observations of her violent captor right in the middle of the carnage––which may make more sense as we get to know our protagonist, but send mixed messages on how the reader should be responding to the situation.) While I don’t necessarily blame the author for starting off this way, as a lack of interest in the first few pages can cause potential publishers to overlook a manuscript or can cause a potential audience to stop caring and abandon the book, it feels as though she’s putting too much emphasis on the hook at the expense of the overall story. For, the story proper, outside the bus-jacking, is full of realistic characters that I grew to feel for in spite of their flaws. If we were given the chance to better understand Veda before she got on the bus, we would have been able to eliminate the asides that kill the scene’s momentum and I expect it would have been easier to care about what was happening when we got there.

Of course, this discussion only really pertains to the first time we encounter the bus-jacking, but the scene, the framing device, returns at the start of each chapter, and it’s almost like a recurrent, surreal aside to an otherwise thoughtful story, the only element I really had a hard time believing. It comes back each time in a tiny snippet of the overall encounter, teasing a payoff that never quite felt big enough, and this makes me wonder if a change in its presentation would be enough to make me like it, if turning it into a linear element in an otherwise linear story would significantly improve it in my mind. But, after glancing at reviews on Goodreads, it also seems just as likely that I just didn’t get it, as our time on the bus appears to be many readers’ favourite part of Be Ready for the Lightning, so you can probably judge this as nowhere near as important as I’m making it out to be.

Beyond the bus, however, I thought Be Ready for the Lightning was an enlightened exploration of the bonds and shared experiences that tie people together, both for good and bad, and the effects of trauma on individuals and their relationships. This side of O’Connell’s book has a slow build, but a satisfying one, so it’s not hard to imagine how exciting interludes could not only help a reader get there but also make a more well-rounded experience. And, even though I wasn’t receptive to the author’s framing device, I still thought the story was good by the end.