Verdict: An intimate portrait of what Thoreau might call a "life of quiet desperation," and its depiction of a love that is kept permanently at a distance.
Waiting for the World to End follows the arc of an unfulfilled but enduring relationship between Thomas Olson, a basketball coach and English teacher, and Mary Wendling, the mother of Ben Wendling, with whom Olson takes on a mentoring, almost paternal role.
Olson serves as the book’s protagonist, and the reader is made privy to his profound sense of isolation and futility. This inner dissatisfaction is at odds with the general perception of Olson among his students, players, and the community at large. As the author makes clear, Olson’s emotional journey, his attempt to regain some sense of engagement, is also a spiritual journey.
While it is has some parallels in stories like Willa Cather’s My Antonia, the author’s treatment of the relationship between Thomas and Mary is intriguing and somewhat refreshing. The “forbidden love affair” plotline is so overused that it has lost all its power to shock and surprise the reader. By keeping the physical element suppressed and unrealized, Hunter is able to depict desire as something much more nuanced and much deeper. She also manages to address issues of God and faith without sounding either naïve or smugly superior to non-believers: an admirable feat, and one that makes this book equally accessible to both groups. Poetry buffs should also thoroughly enjoy the book. Not only do various poems play a role in the narrative, and in the lives of Hunter’s characters, but the author’s prose in general seems to reflect a poetic sensibility.
Beyond this, Waiting for the World to End figures to be accessible to just about everyone, with its intimate portrait of what Thoreau might call a “life of quiet desperation,” and its depiction of a love that is kept permanently at a distance.
Reviewed by Carrie Cantor