“It’s a portal to another moment in time. To a summer day on her parents’ back deck. To the sound of ice cubes clinking in a pitcher of lemonade, and the heat of the sun against the backs of her hands and the tops of her thighs.”
We have such a complex relationship with time. It adds value to our existence, but it is also something we waste, spending much of our lives in drifting states, trying to figure life out and sometimes, before we can, we reach the end. Most of the characters we meet in Day’s novel are in stasis mode. They are going through the motions of their day to day lives, stuck in the rut of routine, until they start seeing their doppelgangers, or the doubles of those no longer living. This knocks them from their static positions, forcing them to reconsider the paths they have chosen or deciding to forge new paths because of what they have seen.
If, Then follows the perspectives of four main characters: Ginny, Mark, Cass and Samara. Ginny and Mark are a married couple but despite this status, it is very clear that things haven’t been working out for some time. They parent their son Noah together, and it seems that this is the only space they share with each other, albeit reluctantly. Ginny is busy at her job as head of surgery, while Mark is trying desperately to be recognised in the work that he does. Instead of their doppelganger sightings bringing them together, it serves to push them apart. Ginny desires to seek out the images she sees, wanting the projected life more than the life she shares with her husband. Mark on the other hand, goes down a seemingly off-his-rocker path, a path laden with lies he tells his wife, the both of them burying what they have seen.
“There’s something exquisite about it, something golden, but also something off-putting, as if each drop of milk contains some echo of the pain it’s taking to wring it out of her.”
The character Cass finds herself struggling with her role as a new mother. Day’s portrayal of the sometimes isolating experience which new mothers face is so spot-on. To nurse, to care for, to be everything your newborn needs – the self you were before motherhood disappears into a vacant image you stare at but don’t know anymore. Before having her baby, she was a rising star in the academic world of philosophy, now the words she wrote swim before her eyes, lacking the comprehension they used to possess. Samara is lost in a different way. While her life belongs to her completely, she doesn’t know what to do with it. This stems from losing her mother as well as her inability to accept her mother’s death.
In a literary landscape overflowing with prose that uses the first person unreliable narrator, it is nice to have a third-person standard narrative like Day’s. She takes her time in painting all her characters’ lives in relation to each other, carefully leaving little clues for the readers to piece it all together. If this is a novel which functions on the reality of the multiverse, then how do we know all the characters exist in the same one? Of course by the end we find out everything, although it is infinitely more satisfying to have solved it before the end. My only issue is that in the process of making her novel accessible, this has rendered it slightly forgettable. It is something to enjoy in the moment, and then put aside once you are done.
Day’s novel reminds me of the movie Sliding Doors, a movie that charts how different our lives can turn out from the mere existence of one changed event. The message of If, Then is not to let these projections of “ifs” run our lives. Life will run its course, time will ensure that. All we can do is seize what we have of the now and make the best from the hand we are dealt. Maybe your path will take you to a place where you no longer love your husband, or bring you a deviation you did not account for. That’s okay, because sometimes, destruction can ironically be the thing you need to heal, to mend, offering clarity amidst the chaos, allowing you to see what you couldn’t before.
Review copy provided
The uncomplicated narrative structure of If, Then makes it a comfortable and enjoyable read. While highly accessible, this ironically does not allow it to attain the depths needed to become a novel that is unforgettable.