Will Mendelsohn, extinction expert and semi-successful author, comes home one night to discover that his wife of 20 years left a candle burning on his desk and has accidentally destroyed not only his life's work but their entire home. As a result, Will promptly declares their marriage over and heads off to Asia to witness the demise of the planet first-hand and to rewrite his masterpiece.
Will knows he is investigating his own possible extinction as much as that of the animals he studies: most of his family was wiped out in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and in abandoning his marriage he has apparently lost out on both love and the chance to continue his family name. On his travels, he throws himself into various short-term relationships, eventually stumbling upon married scriptwriter Grace Tagore while staying with his mother’s Polish friend Mim, a tea garden owner in Assam, India. His relationship with Grace allows him to rediscover his capacity for love but also embroils him in the disturbances in Assam and the dark secrets of Grace’s past.
Right from the beginning, Notes on Extinction suffers from poor construction of character and plot. Will's decision to leave his wife is a critical moment, the driving force behind the rest of the novel, but it is dismissed in a mere eleven pages. The reader is given little detail of the marriage, and Deaner presents its ending as a mere obstacle to the main action of the book to be eliminated as soon as possible (a mistake that could be forgiven in a naïve first-time novelist keen to grab attention, but an odd omission by Deaner, an experienced filmmaker and author of Where Blue Begins and The Body Spoken). Throughout the rest of the book, the author continues to present one-dimensional characters and half-stories, never fully developing them but instead using the romantic set pieces between Will and Grace to populate the bulk of the pages. Deaner misses the opportunity to indulge in vivid descriptions of the breathtaking landscape of India, and her depictions are disappointing and superficial, resulting in a work that fails to draw the reader in to the world of the characters.
There are potentially good elements here – Will’s Oedipal relationship with Mim, the undercurrent of political tension in Assam, the well-researched extracts on extinction – but they are drowned out by an over-reliance on the clichés of the romantic novel: stilted lovemaking scenes, labored dialogue and laughable adjectives (kisses are described as being "potent" or "incendiary"). Detracting further from the credibility of the novel is the utterly implausible character of Stella, a lesbian actress who gets a sexual frisson from looking at machetes and shoots a machine gun in the woods for kicks.
Notes on Extinction lacks structure, coherence and characterization. It places a tiresome relationship at its center at the expense of potentially interesting subject matter, which is pushed to the margins.