If, Then by Kate Hope Day
To be published by Random House on March 12, 2019
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg: 3.69 (as of 2019-02-21)
cw: infidelity, grief
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. All quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
The residents of a sleepy mountain town are rocked by mysterious visions of an alternate reality in this dazzling debut that combines the family-driven suspense of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere with the inventive storytelling of The Immortalists and Station Eleven.
In the quiet mountain haven of Clearing, Oregon, four neighbors find their lives upended when they begin to see themselves in a parallel reality. Ginny, a devoted surgeon whose work often takes precedence over her family, has a baffling vision of her beautiful coworker in her bed, and begins to doubt the solidity of her marriage. Ginny’s husband Mark, a wildlife scientist, sees a vision that suggests impending devastation–and grows increasingly paranoid, threatening the safety of his wife and son. Samara, a young woman desperately mourning the recent death of her mother and questioning why her father seems to be handling it with such ease, witnesses an apparition of her mom healthy and vibrant, and wonders about the secrets her parents may have kept from her. Cass, a brilliant scholar struggling with the demands of new motherhood, catches a glimpse of herself pregnant again, just as she’s on the brink of returning to the project that could define her career.
At first the visions are relatively benign, but they grow increasingly troubling–and in some cases, frightening. When a natural disaster threatens them all, it becomes clear that the visions were not what they first seemed, and that the town of Clearing will never be the same.
Startling, deeply imagined, and compulsively readable, Kate Hope Day’s debut novel is about the choices we make that shape our lives and determine our destinies–the moments that alter us so profoundly that it feels as if we’ve entered another reality.
I’m sure all of us have wondered what if. All those little — and big — choices that we’ve made throughout our lives. What they would have led to, where we’d be today had we chosen a different path. If, Then explores what would happen if we got a glimpse of these once possible other lives. The plot is mostly slow-moving and even when big things happen, the focus is almost entirely on the characters’ internal lives. Kate Hope Day is a remarkably good writer, and I was surprised to find this was her debut novel. She writes flawed, believable characters whose lives you will truly care about. It’s hard to delve too much into without reaching “spoiler” territory, but I’ll try.
She waits for a rush of gratitude for all the good, solid things in her life. But it doesn’t come. Her life will continue just as it is. She’ll go home and figure out what to make for dinner. She’ll have a glass of wine, feed the cats, and talk to Mark about what to do if school is cancelled next week. She’ll iron a shirt for clinic tomorrow.
Ginny was probably my favorite character (although I’m probably biased because she’s queer). She starts out as the stereotypical woman-who-can’t-have-it-all, a surgeon who doesn’t have time for her family, but as her thoughts and experiences are exposed to us she becomes her own person outside of the trope she lives. I do wish that her husband, Mark, had felt a bit more sympathetic to me, but I think that’s also due to some personal bias. It was interesting to see how Ginny’s perception of their relationship seemed to change the nature of the relationship itself, although Mark had something to do with that as well.
She’s not very good at it — loving and being loved.
Samara is deep into mourning the loss of her mother, and I enjoyed seeing their relationship explored in a different way than Ginny and Mark’s. Most would assume that the death of a person ends your relationship with them, but it was clear that Samara’s bond with her mother was able to strengthen even after the death of the latter. I liked how this was displayed, through Samara imagining the things her mother would say and how those things shifted after Samara’s impression of her had changed.
The picture Cass has of herself — it doesn’t match the woman in the rocker at all. When she thinks of herself the picture is colorless, all light eyes and skin and hair. Washed-out. Static. An overdeveloped driver’s license photo that lives permanently in her mind. But this other Cass is a polychromatic wonder. Full of agile, assured movement, even in routine pose. Full of grace.
Last but not least, I just adored Cass and seeing how her relationship with herself changed. Cass is a new mother and former doctorate student who put her studies on hold in order to care for her child. After giving birth, she lost all motivation to write and sees no way of returning to her former life in academia. As someone with depression and chronic fatigue, I can relate to having the need to do something while also lacking the ability to do it. Watching Cass grapple with this internal struggle felt simultaneously saddening and inspiring. With not just Cass, but the entire cast of characters, Day shows that change, even when necessary, is not easy.
What I really loved was the ending. There is a slowly rising wave of emotions building throughout the novel that come to a thrilling climax near the end. The aftermath of this wave is examined in a thoughtful and realistic light, and Day makes no promises of easy happy endings. She recognizes that although things are hopeful for these characters and their futures, difficulties still lie ahead. I’m no longer satisfied by carefree endings and enjoy the more nuanced world Day was able to provide. The journey of these characters is not at an end, and that is made clear to the reader. I put down the book with a surge of emotion, and hope that Day’s next novel will give me a similar experience.