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The Pros and Cons of The Measure by Nikki Erlick

It's not a perfect book, but there's a lot to love about the 2022 dystopian hit

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

Picture this—one morning, a box shows up on your doorstep. The same box has shown up on everyone’s doorstep around you. Inside sits a string, and the length of that string tells you exactly how long you have left to live. 

It’s a frightening concept, and I have to tip my hat to author Nikki Erlick, who completely captivates readers with this haunting new reality portrayed in her sought-after 2022 dystopia novel The Measure. Erlick begs readers to answer questions we all wrestle with on a daily basis—what would we do if we got the opportunity to live like we were dying? Or, better still, what would we do if we knew that we wouldn’t die doing it? 

As a reader, at first blush, I was as intoxicated as all the other people waiting in seemingly interminable lines on Libby to explore this concept. And while I think Erlick is an exceptionally talented writer with a strong voice, I’m not sure I felt completely satisfied when I turned the last page of The Measure. 

Read on for more ways this book either did or didn’t measure up to admittedly lofty expectations.

What Nikki Erlick Got Right and Wrong

Right: Building compelling relationships

The characters of Nina, Ben, Maura and Amy—and those with whom they associated—were incredibly compelling in their relationships. One storyline featured a long-stringer couple (that is, two people destined to live long lives), another a short-stringer couple, and then their friend and sister who are slowly falling in love over the course of the story. Erlick offered a very neat and tidy ending for this beloved family, which included a long-stringed aunt who always wanted kids with her short-stringed wife adopting the children of another couple, both of whom ended up with desperately short strings. The story was sweet, and it provided hope through what would otherwise have been a fraught narrative. 

Wrong: Including too many characters

As the story branched out to three other narrators, however, it became more and more challenging to follow everyone’s arcs and even remember how long different characters’ strings were. Jack, Javi, and Anthony were all intriguing characters in their own way, but the problem with seven arcs in only three hundred pages is that each character can only leave you wanting more. 

As a reader, I love it when authors seamlessly connect characters from two different worlds within the same story. When they artfully stumble across each other’s paths or end up the subject of a passing reference from somebody’s best friend, teacher, or colleague. 

Erlick almost hit the mark with this character connectivity. Ben and Maura’s friend from short-string therapy is caught in the crossfire of an assassination attempt against Anthony. Another of their therapy friends encounters Jack in the middle of a rare moment of bravery on his part in the streets of New York City. The subtle nods are there, and one cannot argue that Erlick forced these connections down reader’s throats. 

But they’re just a little too much of the “in-between” Goldilocks always seemed to seek. They’re not subtle enough not to feel intentional, which requires some suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part. That of all eight billion people in the world, all seven of these people managed to be within one degree of separation from each other. At the same time, they’re not so obvious as to create a community bond between these seven narrative voices. It read a little bit like an afterthought, and every time Erlick tried to span a connection between characters, I found that it shocked me out of place in the story. I had to reorient myself, asking questions like, “Why was this person in New York? Where is that character’s home?”

Right: Embracing a challenging concept

Erlick's work was cut out for her from the moment the first word hit the page. She dealt with our angst about death while also allegorically unpacking the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election, and many more rich complexities from the past several years. 

Wrong: Leaving important questions unanswered

I found myself wanting more throughout the story. We knew people were unfairly prejudiced against short-stringers, and we knew that short stringers were accomplishing great things in the world, but it felt like we were told that, rather than watching our characters experience it firsthand. Maura’s and Ben’s accomplishments didn’t shine as brightly as those of unnamed short-stringers nationwide attending protests and creating art installations. 

Yes, at the end, we see Javi’s heroic rescue mission, but what is the fallout of this? What happens when the reality of his lie comes to light? Do people unpack his decision and use it to combat short-stringer bias, or does the world continue as though Javi never existed? (And if that’s the case, then why did readers bother getting invested in him in the first place?)

Amy can’t have been the only person who chose not to look at her string, but her reasoning was never fully explored. It seemed, on paper, to be just another haphazard choice she made—one that ultimately orphaned her children. As it was, this decision almost made Amy seem selfish, or at least thoughtless, even though I know her character was anything but.

And finally—the plight of the long-stringer. Nowhere in The Measure did Erlick address the fact that a long string does not guarantee a good quality of life. Sure, it’s alluded to, but when we have so many characters, why don’t we see a long stringer with dementia? Or a long-stringer grieving and living with the agony that they have years without the short stringers they loved so dearly?

The Measure: Final(ish) Takeaways

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

The Measure

By Nikki Erlick

All in all, Erlick rose to the challenge presented her, but I do think The Measure didn’t fully measure up. Maybe that’s okay. Because when it comes to the reality of death, prejudice, fear, and most importantly, life, one person will never have all the answers. If Erlick’s goal was to start a conversation, she certainly achieved that. 

Let’s just hope it continues.