Ann Decker thinks she is being stalked. When her shadow turns up at her workplace and asks for her by name, it turns out that this woman has a job offer for her. Ann agrees to be picked up the next day and shown around the campus of Transformations Incorporated. And this is where my problems with the novel start.
The first thing we learn about Ann is that she thinks she is being followed. Then we find out her mother abandoned her, and then that she is a great computer hacker, and then that she hates people paying attention to her. There is no reason to suspect that she's a risk-taker, no reason to think that she is desperate for a new job, and we are given no other reason to accept the idea that, within three minutes of meeting a woman who has apparently been following her for a week, it is reasonable for Ann to give this woman her phone number and home address.
This sense of impatience—that the narrative must be hurried, that the real story must be reached ASAP and that there is (and here is a pun I’ll explain in a moment) no time for explaining things—is a problem throughout the story.
It turns out that Transformations Inc is a company involved in time travel (remember that pun?). The company's headquarters and its motivating actors are in the future, where dreadful things have occurred. Transformations Inc is trying, they claim, to tweak small things throughout history in order to prevent what are for Ann future cataclysms.
The hurry-up factor is evident here, too: while Ann "spent the evening in a daze" (p. 17) after finding out about time travel, there’s little time spent dealing with the questions that Ann or anyone else would surely have. Instead, the next morning Ann and the rest of her intake are immediately sent to history and language classes to learn about the places they will go on assignment. Neither Ann nor anyone else asks about time travel—how it works, who invented it—again. This is incredible, since all of the new employees are told they've been chosen because they are bright, and certainly they’re shown to be curious about the places they are to be sent.
As well as glossing over reactions to the idea of time travel, the narrative is also chivvied along by Ann and her colleagues being given a drug "that enhanced their ability to learn" so that they are conversant in "Kaphtoran" (the language of ancient Crete, in the story) within the space of a month (p. 19). Given that these people literally work for a time travel outfit, it seems odd that they need to hasten their studies. This mysterious drug is simply too convenient, and inserted without explanation. It’s another jarring note in a story that is already going too fast.
Also unlikely is the way that none of the new recruits initially question the motives or the consequences of Transformations Inc's actions. Early on, Ann asks: "When history changes, that means things change in the present, doesn’t it?" Her teacher, Strickland, answers that "we only make very slight changes" and therefore only the people at Transformations Inc notice their effects (p. 21). However, given that the whole purpose of the company is to change things enough to avert future catastrophe, this seems entirely illogical. Ann doesn’t start to question the company’s motives, or the possible ramifications of their actions, until she is challenged to do so by another team member, Meret, while on assignment on Crete.
Eventually, Ann discovers that there is a secret group within Transformations Inc that is working against the company. This group, Core, believe that Transformations Inc is not actually working in the best interests of the globe, and are taking action to make changes that they think will be best. Ann meets people across different times who are all a part of Core, some of whom refer to the assignments given to Core by Meret. Ann wonders whether "a group like that [could] have survived for twenty-five hundred years" (p. 233), and the historian in me finds it very hard to believe that a secret group like this could indeed have survived. In fiction, this sort of secret-group-within-a-secret-group can be a lot of fun to read about, and I appreciated what Goldstein was trying to do—suggesting that Core are all about supporting matriarchal societies and historical female power, whereas Transformations Inc appear to be supporting male power. However, the idea that their passwords are variants on "Core"—"Kore," a Greek goddess, and "Cor," meaning heart in Languedoc, and towns with car- or cor- in their name (all planted by members of Core across several continents)—is too simplistic, too pat, to be taken seriously. Transformations Inc is too small, and Core even smaller, to be having a serious linguistic impact like this.
Ultimately, Ann goes to the future, to Transformation Inc's base of operations; she wants to try and change history "back to what it had been" (p. 266)—although without knowing how long Transformations Inc has been working, and where, this is surely nigh impossible. More of the super-fast learning occurs when Ann looks for "a tutorial for computer modeling" (sic), and it only takes her about thirty pages to understand "enough to think about modeling, about what events she could try to change" (p. 266).
Throughout all this, Ann knows that she was abandoned by her mother as an infant; but she also wonders where "the puckered scars on her torso" (p. 10) come from (these pop up now and then but rarely feel as if they are a real part of Ann’s world). Now, these things needn't be the sort to ruin Ann’s life, but the problem is that they are mentioned often enough to be considered significant, and yet not in such a way as to show their impact on who Ann has become. However, it's at this point that Ann experiences some resolution to these personal struggles. In the future, Ann finds footage of her mother—"a girl, around fourteen" (p. 274)—running into a garage and inflicting scissor wounds on the infant Ann. Ann decides to "set the computer for 1989, walk into that garage, grab the scissors out of that woman’s hand" (p. 276). She knows this means ignoring the mission of Core, but "The hell with the world . . . What had it ever done for her?" (p. 277). This volte face feels completely out of character for Ann, who has been putting her personal safety on the line for some time now in order to help Core. Eventually, she does do the "right" thing, but her decision to change history for personal gain is an unsettling moment—not because Ann has been such a stalwart moral hero up to this point and her wavering is unexpected, but because the issue of her mother and her being selfish hasn’t been demonstrated fully enough across the story. Again, a lack of detail makes this aspect of Ann’s life—and the novel's narrative—frustrating rather than fascinating.
This novel had the potential to explore the ramifications of time travel, and the ethics of altering the past to improve the future. However, it moves too fast, and doesn't take the time to wrestle with these issues. I wanted a deeper analysis of how changing small things in the past could have flow-on effects, and a greater explanation of how that was meant to make the future better. It could also have been an interesting feminist exploration of history and how the past—and therefore our presents and futures—could have been different. Goldstein certainly has bits of this. Kaphtor/Crete is a matriarchal society that gets brought down in favour of a masculine dictatorship. There are barbed comments about the treatment of the teacher and thinker Hypatia, and a withering take-down on the reality of troubadour poetry ("They sing to a statue of a woman . . . A woman they created" p. 235). But Goldstein doesn’t enunciate any sort of alternative vision for the world or even suggest that there is room for such; in the end there are some women meeting together but we’re not even allowed to hear what they’re talking about. Goldstein also has Ann and her fellow agent Franny discussing whether women would necessarily be better than men at running things (p. 257). However, and again, the narrative is in too much of a hurry to really explore these issues, and Ann and Franny barely get started on their discussion before they part and never continue it.
In the end, I feel that Goldstein delivers neither an exciting time travel story nor a thought-provoking reflection on society. The beginnings of each are present, but Weighing Shadows never fully develops either strand.