Throughout the novel, the main characters, Kirsten, Arthur, and the prophet, struggle to find meaning in the face of tremendous grief and loss. Their interwoven journeys shed light on both the incredible beauty of the everyday and the searing heartbreak of inevitable loss. In many ways, the early scenes of the novel, along with Arthur’s death itself, serve as a framework with which to understand these overarching themes. The novel begins with Arthur acting on stage as King Lear and experiencing an emergency in which the audience isn’t sure what is real and what is art. This sense of unreality sets the tone of the novel in which the characters struggle to grapple with the world’s collapse and a loss that outsizes their ability to comprehend it. Before he dies, Arthur looks at the mistakes he’s made in his life and comes to the realization that he has prioritized the wrong things by choosing fame and celebrity over love and beauty. This parallels the realization that many characters come to throughout the novel in the wake of the collapse in which death and tragedy strip life to its essentials until all that’s left is what humans truly cannot do without. Their stories emphasize that meaning is created through service, art, and love.

Much of the novel is told through Kirsten’s perspective. Growing into an adult in the aftermath of the pandemic, Kirsten spends much of her time grappling with the role of the old world within the new one. In this way, she’s haunted by a past she can barely remember and struggles to understand both what was lost and what is left in the new world. She seeks out press clippings and other remnants of Arthur’s life because he’s one of the last people she remembers from her life before. Indeed, Arthur is one of the last people to live his entire life pre-pandemic. As a memory from her past life, Arthur is a stage-father to Kirsten, and she searches for him the way one might search for stories of family members long gone. She wants both to know him and to know herself. She joins up with the Traveling Symphony because one constant between her life before and after the collapse is her love of acting. She also wants to engage in acts of service that make others’ lives better. She observes the meaning Shakespeare brings to the lives of those toiling to survive in the new world and believes fully in the symphony’s motto that “Survival is insufficient.” In this way, Kirsten’s narrative thread emphasizes that to move beyond mere survival, it’s crucial to live a life dedicated to connecting with and helping others.

Like Kirsten, Tyler (Arthur’s biological son) spends his post-pandemic life trying to make sense of what was lost and to create a sense of purpose in the wake of the apocalypse. But instead of turning to art, Tyler develops as the prophet a dogmatic belief system built on the idea that those who were spared from the flu were chosen by God. The disturbing nature of this belief emerges when Tyler is very young and reading from the Bible to a plane-tomb full of pandemic corpses. Unlike faith in art, Tyler’s faith in divine intervention condemns the billions of people who died and marks them as sinners. His dark worldview prioritizes power over connection, and throughout the novel, Kirsten’s and Tyler’s views increasingly come into conflict. Both are essentially Arthur’s children. While Arthur cared for and cherished Kirsten, he abandoned Tyler. The two characters are expressions of different parts of their father figure with Tyler embodying Arthur’s drive for power, status, and exceptionality, and Kirsten embodying Arthur’s pure, childlike love of art and beauty.

The novel’s climax arrives when Kirsten and the prophet come face to face in a violent confrontation. Because the prophet has been pursuing Kirsten and the Symphony for most of the novel, it’s clear that only one of them will make it out of their meeting alive. What saves Kirsten is that unbeknownst to the prophet, they have both found solace in Miranda’s Dr. Eleven graphic novel. They are perhaps the only two people on Earth who have been reading it for the past nineteen years. In this way, art saves Kirsten. It gives the prophet pause in his intent to kill her, long enough for a member of his own cult to kill him. Art triumphs over the pursuit of power, and Kirsten is spared so she may rejoin the Symphony. This suggests that in the new world, beauty, love, and art can have a chance to triumph over darker forces. When Clark shows Kirsten the spark of light of electricity in the distance from Severn City, it represents the hope for humanity to once again flourish.