Two Women, United by Climate Change and the Man They Both Married

THE LIMITS, by Nell Freudenberger

“The future is already here,” goes a line usually attributed to William Gibson. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.” So it can seem with climate change. Floods in Libya, temperatures above 125 degrees in China and Iran, wildfires across Hawaii and Canada and Tenerife: Those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected by these multiplying events can only watch from the intimate but infinite distance of our phone screens, a peculiarly modern kind of powerlessness.

In her involving new novel, “The Limits,” the gifted veteran author Nell Freudenberger wants to close this gap. The book is set during the first year of the pandemic, partly in New York and partly in Tahiti; its subject, as it roves among characters in the two places, is the essential human similarity of our complicated families and communities everywhere on this imperiled planet.

“The Limits” revolves around two women, the past and current wives of a prominent Manhattan cardiologist. The ex-wife is Nathalie, a French scientist studying coral at the CRIOBE, a research station on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia. As the book begins, she sends her daughter, the bright but stubborn 15-year-old Pia, to live in New York with her father, Stephen, and his new wife, Kate, a high school teacher who has just become pregnant.

Some novelists might confine their story to this quartet. Freudenberger, whose work has been ambitious in its scope since her sensational 2003 debut collection, “Lucky Girls,” introduces an additional focal character, Athyna. She’s a student of Kate’s from a disadvantaged background, and has to balance her schoolwork and standard teen problems with caring — tenderly but distractedly — for her 4-year-old nephew.

By the time Athyna meets Pia, in the culmination of the book’s plotlines, the reader already knows how different their lives are. Take what they eat. Athyna makes her nephew mac and cheese:“They were out of milk, but Marcus didn’t care. He was happy with the cheese powder mixed with some butter and the macaroni.” Not much later, Pia’s father goes shopping and picks up “local milk and butter, swordfish, baby lettuce and butternut squash. Fresh sage and rosemary, and … at the last minute, a plum pie and some honeycomb ice cream. He thought they deserved a treat.”

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