Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Report: What Ifs

Sometimes I fall into entirely unintended reading themes. I didn't plan it this way, but I read two books about time travel and alternate realities in the week leading up to the Doctor Who anniversary. One of them I knew had that premise, but the other I picked up because of the author, with no idea what it was about.

The first one I read was Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster. I'd read her memoirs and find them hilarious, even if I suspect she'd be an unpleasant person to be around in real life, but now she's writing novels. I figured if her novels were as hilarious as her memoirs, they should be fun, so when I saw one at the library, I picked it up. It turned out to be a time travel story, sort of a mix of Mean Girls and Peggy Sue Got Married. Karma starts to catch up with a former high school queen bee (who never grew out of it) as her twenty-year reunion approaches. She gets fired from her job for slacking off and gets dumped by her husband for being a materialistic bitch. Going to her reunion to revisit her glory days doesn't even give her any satisfaction, since it turns out that all the people she used to look down on and torment are now more successful than she is. The only person who doesn't act like she hates her is the former hippie chick, now a New Age guru, who takes her home when she gets drunk and then gives her an elixir to give her "clarity." After taking the elixir, she wakes up during her senior year of high school, with the chance to fix what went wrong -- but every change will have repercussions.

This was a book with a main character I was prepared to hate, but I ended up finding her sympathetic as she grew in awareness. The slightly catty, bitchy voice worked, and it was generally a really funny book that I read in just a few sittings. It also got me started going down memory lane and thinking about what I might change if I had a do-over (I probably wouldn't change anything about high school, even though I was reasonably miserable, but even though I enjoyed college, there's a lot I might change with the benefit of hindsight).

The other book with a similar theme was The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer. In this one, the heroine has just lost her twin brother and then her lover has left her for someone else. To deal with the resulting deep depression, she decides to try an experimental therapy. She wakes up as herself, more or less, in 1918. She's still her, but the 1918 version, and the same people who were in her life in her present day of 1985 are also there -- and her brother is still alive. It turns out that this version of herself is also undergoing an experimental therapy, so after that treatment, she wakes up in the 1941 version of herself. The three of them rotate lives as they go through the course of treatment, and each one can't resist meddling to make the life she's currently in better, for her definition of "better," as each has her own priorities. As they near the end of the treatment cycle, they have to decide which life they really want.

This was one of those books where I loved the concept, but was so-so about the execution. It's very much "literary" fiction, where it seemed to be making a point about something. The cover copy referred to it as being deeply romantic, but I found all the romantic relationships rather depressing. The writing was lovely and evocative, but now I want to see if I can come up with a different way of playing with the concept.

Maybe it's a sign that I'm an uncultured rube, but the more "chick lit" style story was the one that made me think about my own life and choices, and all that, and that lingered in my head far longer. Theoretically, "literary" fiction is better for us because it makes us think, but I don't see how humor, an easy writing style and a happy ending keep a book from being able to provoke thoughts. It seems like different books speak to different people, and it's pointless to tell us that a particular book should be speaking to us more because of the way it's written.

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