CW/TW: child sexual assault in the book, and discussion thereof in the review.
If you were to ask me who my favourite author is, I’d hem and haw and, after squirming and setting aside my guilt for not naming a dozen others, tell you it’s Ann McMan (if you’ve read my review of Hoosier Daddy, this is unlikely to be a shock). A large part of that is her versatility, how she hops genres with seeming ease, crushing it equally well in romance, general fiction, and mysteries. Given that ability to cross genres, I wasn’t totally surprised to hear she was releasing a political thriller and, despite not being a fan of thrillers, I knew I was going to read it.
Before diving in, I want to call attention to the acknowledgements, because I’m listed there and noted as the reason McMan chose to write Galileo ahead of other books. A little over a year ago, she emailed me with a very basic plot idea and “Thoughts???” tacked at the end, and I responded with “Yes, that. Write THAT now.” That’s as far as my involvement with this book went, since I didn’t see or hear anything else about it until the final ebook hit my Kindle.
Galileo is the second book featuring Evangeline “Evan” Reed, and it takes place two years after the events of Dust. Galileo does a good job of catching us up on what happened, so it’s really up to you if you want to read this on its own or if you want to read them in order. That said, if you read Galileo first, you’ll get massive spoilers for Dust, so choose accordingly.
Evan Reed drinks too much coffee, swears a lot, is often asshole to the people she works with, and loves her daughter, girlfriend, and best friend an awful lot. She’s also a whiz at political opposition research, which is why she gets a call about digging up dirt on J. Meyer Cawley, the far-right-wing darling that the President of the United States is nominating to the Supreme Court. It’s a rush job, because the Senate is fast-tracking the nomination, leaping at the chance to tip the court’s balance in favour of… well, you can imagine because we’ve been seeing a lot of that play out in real life. Anyway, this guy has been vetted up the wazoo for previous appointments, but the Democratic National Committee is paying Evan on the off chance that she can dig up something incriminating that isn’t already in the public record so he can be kept off the bench.
When combing through the document pile that’s sent her way, Evan finds a curious photo.
The face of Edwin Miller was the last thing Evan expected to see when she started sifting through the voluminous document dump Dan sent her in the morning. But there he was, standing on the perimeter of a photo that included Cawley and half a dozen other formally-dressed men—one wearing clerical vestments—and some gangly teenage boys. The boys all wore ill-fitting suits, clearly dressed up for some kind of special occasion. There were Christmas decorations visible in the background. The group stood in front of a carved stone fireplace in what looked like a library or study. There were polished shelves lined with leather-bound books, and an elaborately framed painting displayed above the fireplace. Miller was a lot younger, of course, but Evan recognized him right away.
She peered at the note someone in Dan’s office had pinned to the scan. J. Meyer Cawley, Christmas 1995. That had been ten years before Evan vetted the democrat for his successful U.S. Senate run in Pennsylvania.
And twelve years before Miller got busted for soliciting sex from a twelve-year-old boy in a Cincinnati hotel . . .
Rather than continuing to sift through the thousands of documents, Evan decides to pull on the thread that this photo presents. After all, Miller is in prison, so he’s easy to get to. Except that he’s not, because he’s now in a mental health facility with a traumatic brain injury. Evan flies out to visit him, hoping he has info about Cawley, but most of what he says is cryptic, talking about stars, Aquarius and Jupiter. She doesn’t realize it at the time, but Evan walks away with two more threads: Miller is working a puzzle while she’s talking to him that she later realizes matches the painting in the photo that first sent her to visit him, and he says the word “Galileo”. Now she needs to find out what Galileo is and to track down the painting, and hopefully find more threads along the way.
If your spidey senses went up when the photo described a bunch of well-dressed men, a priest, and a bunch of teenage boys, well done because, yeah, that and the reason for Edwin going to prison are the first clues for the reader that Evan is going to uncover some horrible shit about affluent men sexually abusing teenage boys. And while it may seem like I’m giving away the big reveal, I’m actually not because that aspect of the story starts unfolding pretty early on, and there’s a lot more there to discover, including a couple of bombshells around who’s involved.
Given the nature of the crimes Evan uncovers, Galileo can be difficult to read in spots. It doesn’t pull punches, so I occasionally needed to put it down and read something much lighter (if you need any Paris/Rory Gilmore fanfic recs, let me know, because that was my balm of choice). This was especially true in a conversation between Evan’s best friend Father Tim and Mark, one of the former victims. Tim and Mark had been teammates on their highschool basketball team, and even though Mark mentions acts that happened decades prior, to dispel Tim’s belief that he and some of their teammates were having special dinners at a private supper club, there’s an immediacy to it, because Mark’s words make us acknowledge the ugliness of the abuses he’d experienced. And yet, while moments like that are rough, the book isn’t wall-to-wall overwhelming because they’re balanced by the warmth we see between Evan and the people closest to her.
Evan and her girlfriend, Julia, are past the first blush of their relationship, which began in Dust, and now they’re ready to make it a little more permanent. Evan’s teenage daughter, Stevie, adores Julia, and so does Tim, Stevie’s godfather. The four of them make a sweet family unit full of heart and sass. They have a handful of scenes together where they’re affectionate smartasses with each other, like when Stevie wants to talk to the three of them about where she’ll be applying for college, but she hasn’t written down the list of her top choices.
“Were we all supposed to intuit [the list]?” Evan asked. “Or did you think we’d receive it through osmosis?”
Stevie looked at Julia for support. “Mom doesn’t think anything has value if it’s not written down someplace.”
“Sorry, Stevie,” Julia said, apologetically. “You’re preaching to a publisher, here. Writing things down is kind of my life’s work.”
“It’s a conspiracy, kid.” Tim had rejoined them and was opening another bottle of wine.
“You, too?” Stevie asked him.
He shrugged. “At least I come by it honestly. My people started with the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
While Evan investigates Cawley, Tim and Julia have their own crises, which are just as important to the story as anything Evan does. For Tim, it’s a question of faith, whether he can remain in the Catholic Church, knowing it’s been protecting predators for decades. Julia, meanwhile, is rocked when she sees the photo that first kicked off Evan’s investigation, because she recognizes both the location and some of the people. As Julia and Tim each go off to seek answers, their own threads converge with Evan’s in a way that meant I couldn’t put the book down for anything in the last 30 percent, even when some of the really bad shit came up.
My single gripe, which is why I’m giving this a B+, is that the ending left me wanting more. Because it’s a spoiler, I’m throwing it behind the spoiler thing.
So, do I recommend Galileo? Yes, definitely. The writing is crisp, and though the subject matter is rough, it was doable because of all the heart, humour, and intrigue that comes along with it. However, if you’re looking for escapism, this won’t be the book for you. Galileo isn’t meant to take us out of the world. It’s shining a light on a specific, rotten part of it, so we can see it for exactly what it is. Our takeaway is clear, because near the end, Julia muses, “When you know better, Maya Angelou said, do better.” It’s unlikely that most of us have the opportunity to break up a ring of abusers, but we will encounter other injustices around us every day. Galileo is a book that wants us all to do better, whenever and wherever we can. Because of its subject matter, I may not read this book again without skipping its rawest parts, but it—and its message—is one I won’t ever forget.