A Beginning at the End
by Mike Chen
400pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 3.9/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.92/5

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A Beginning at the End, Mike Chen’s second novel after his Goodreads Science Fiction Choice Award–nominated debut Here and Now and Then, is a post-apocalyptic tale about found family and starting over after the world didn’t exactly end, but rather paused and changed. It’s mainly set in San Francisco in 2025, six years after a worldwide pandemic killed approximately five billion people. Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD) has become common, and nearly everyone lost someone—or more likely, several someones—to the global disease.

With the resulting 70% drop in the US population, the Family Stability Board ensures that the children who remain are raised by those who meet their criteria for “social normalcy,” and people are encouraged to prioritize stability over love when choosing a spouse. But dating and meeting new people is difficult when many are hesitant to attend large social gatherings, shake hands, or do anything that could increase their chances of catching an illness like the one that caused so much death around the globe—especially after news of recent bouts of flu in Florida begins to spread.

This is the story of three survivors who had been carrying on without supportive relationships becoming each other’s support. Rob, a widowed single father, faces the scrutiny of the Family Stability Board when his seven-year-old daughter begins acting out at school. Fearing that his child will be taken from him, Rob finds himself sharing his problems with Krista, a wedding/event planner with financial problems, when the two are stuck in an elevator during a power outage. As a result, Krista begins babysitting Rob’s little girl while he attempts to prove he’s socially normal by attending speed dating sessions and PASD support group meetings. At the latter, Rob comes to better know one of his coworkers, Moira, and both Rob and Moira find someone they can open up to in each other—a bond of trust Rob has not had since his wife’s death, and one Moira has never had with her fiancé, whom she’s primarily marrying for security. And when Rob’s daughter is in trouble, he can turn to not only Moira but also Krista, who has come to care for the little girl she’s been watching in spite of herself.

A Beginning at the End is a straightforward, feel-good story told from the third person perspectives of Rob, Krista, and Moira (with occasional brief chapters from the perspective of Rob’s daughter, Sunny). Though various articles and presidential speeches provide more insight into the world than what is shown through these characters’ flashbacks and present circumstances, I didn’t feel that it delved particularly deeply into the post-apocalyptic society: it’s mainly about the everyday lives of these three people as they move forward and form their own family ties. Yet, like the world-building, I thought the characterization was too limited to be compelling. These three were clearly shaped by their pasts and personalities (a bit too clearly for my taste, as a lot is spelled out without leaving room for subtlety), but they seemed closer to caricatures than real people given the amount of focus on a few key traits and main issues.

For Rob, this is in the form of his loneliness and social awkwardness, and his major problems are keeping his daughter and fixing the mess he made when he didn’t know how to get two-year-old Sunny to accept that her recently deceased mother was never coming back. Krista is a firm believer in getting over things (even the end of the world as they knew it!) and looking forward, never back. Her cynicism and attitude serve her well in some ways since she refuses to put up with toxicity, but she’s also quick to cut people off when differences arise rather than trying to work through them—even decent people who genuinely care about her. Moira was a nineteen-year-old pop star when the world fell apart, and she fled that life and the domineering father who made her live it the first chance she got. She’s been running from her past and hiding her identity ever since, and she even became engaged to a man who does not know who she truly is.

The main reason I kept reading this novel after the first few chapters was due to curiosity about how Moira’s hidden past would catch up with her, and although I never found it utterly captivating, I was somewhat interested in finding out how these three stories would converge and end at first. But I found it less engaging as I got further into it and probably would have left it unfinished if it wasn’t a fairly short, quick read. I prefer books that delve more deeply into characters and/or worlds, and I am also fond of lyrical prose with a distinctive voice rather than the plain style used in this novel. (That is not to say this is badly written—although I was not pausing to savor turns of phrase, I also wasn’t pausing to cringe at them! Although it’s not my preferred style, I believe it does take skill to write prose that’s easy to breeze through.)

A Beginning at the End wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it may appeal more to those looking for an effortlessly readable, hopeful book about found family.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from A Beginning at the End