In this very high-concept young-adult novel, a group of high school friends is torn apart after the mysterious death of their golden boy, Jim, in a possible suicide near the end of senior year. Or rather, one of the group — Jim’s girlfriend, Beatrice — is torn away from the rest of the group, retreating into her private grief while the other four members of the group remain close. At the end of her first year of college, Beatrice meets up with the other four, and a second tragedy at the end of that night traps all five young people in a time loop. They are doomed to relieve the last few hours of their lives over and over until they can agree on which one of them will survive — and only one can make it out alive.
This contrivance is used to explore the five characters and how they react to the situation. The ways in which they deal with the time loop will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any film or read any book that deals with the premise of repeated time or repeated lives — they try to escape, then they immerse themselves in hedonistic pleasure, then they finally settle down to seriously trying to solve the problem presented by the loop. One of the group, Martha,, convinces everyone that in order to get out of the loop, they need to solve the mystery of Jim’s death, and so they become obsessed with conducting an investigation, eventually learning that they can travel back to relive different days. When they finally get back to relive the night Jim died, all the pieces are in place for them to finally break out of the Neverworld Wake. Or rather, for one of them to break out.
I read this in a day; it kept the pages turning and kept me engaged in solving the mystery of Jim’s death and waiting to see how/if/who would survive at the end of the novel.
Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel tells two parallel stories, separated by time but linked by a physical location. In Vineland, New Jersey — a planned utopian community — in the 1880s, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood befriends naturalist Mary Treat. (Both Treat the woman and Vineland the community are historical, though Greenwood is the author’s invention). Meanwhile, over a century later on the same piece of Vineland property, writer Willa Knox copes with an old house (the one formerly occupied by Greenwood, which Willa and her husband have inherited) that is literally falling apart and an extended family that is metaphorically doing the same thing. Both stories evoke the complexity of living in a time of change and upheaval: while Mary Treat and Thatcher Greenwood grapple with new ideas like Darwinian evolution that are considered too dangerous to talk about in the established social order of Vineland, Willa and her family cope with the threat of environmental collapse and the shattering reality of living in an era where a lifetime of work with two middle-class incomes still cannot provide enough security to care for their grown children, a grandchild, and a sick and aging parent.
Not surprisingly, I loved this historical story, but I was a bit surprised that I was even more engaged by the contemporary story. I loved Willa, and the overwhelming pressure that she and her husband always seemed to be under with needs pressing in from them on all sides felt all too real. Willa’s free-spirited daughter Tig provides the difficult and complicated voice of hope in this novel: when everything seems to be collapsing, hope does not reside in trying to hang onto the old order and prop it up (as Willa is constantly trying to prop up the crumbling house they live in with various doomed reclamation schemes) — but to let it go and accept something new, even if it’s hard and unfamiliar. A difficult lesson in the 1880s and in the 2010s, but a necessary one.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
This book has looked intriguing to me for awhile. I love stories where people are trapped in loops living their lives over and over again for some reason. This book is not quite like that, but it’s similarly high-concept. A nameless man finds himself in the woods outside what appears to be an upper-class party at an English country estate. A woman may have just been murdered in front of him — but he has no recollection of who or where he is. And just as he’s starting to figure it out — he falls asleep and wakes up on the same day, at the same party, but as a different person.
It turns out that our main character has eight (I think? I lost track) chances to experience this day, each as a different person, with the ultimate goal of solving the mystery of who killed a woman named Evelyn Hardcastle. This is a fiendishly complicated puzzle-type of book, and it’s the sort of thing that’s only going to be worthwhile if the author can pull it off in a satisfactory way. I think Stuart Turton pretty much did — but what didn’t work for me was any deep sense of emotional engagement. I wanted to solve the puzzle but I never got really pulled into the characters or caring what happened to them, which I think is an important missing piece in a novel like this — it can’t be just about the puzzle.