And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth."
Who, like the narrator in Robert Frost's poem, has not wondered at the course his or her life has taken? How would different choices, especially those at major crossroads, have changed our lives and us? What would that other life look like? This is the question at the center of Ellen Meister's novel The Other Life. Her main character, Quinn, has long sensed the actual existence of lives where she chose differently; she can even touch those other lives. And yet she has avoided the temptation to see what her life would have been like had she not chosen to leave her emotionally needy boyfriend for the stable, loving man she married. She is grounded by her love for her 6 year old son but when she discovers that the baby she is pregnant with has a serious, perhaps fatal condition, she can no longer contain her curiousity about her other life in her rush to escape the terrible, gut-wrenching truth of this pregnancy.
Pushing through the portal in her basement, Quinn enters the life she would have had if she had stayed with her shock jock DJ boyfriend Eugene all those years before. Her life couldn't be more different but the thing that makes Quinn unable to let go of her hold on this alternate life is the fact that here, in this version of reality, her bi-polar artist mother did not commit suicide, did not leave a gaping hole in Quinn's life.
As Quinn moves back and forth between her two lives, albeit with increasing difficulty physically, she must confront the harshness of life. She has to decide the fate of her unborn baby, grieve for the absence of her mother in her originally chosen life, learn to trust and rely on her husband's love, and be the mother than her son needs. Most of all, Quinn has to accept that our decisions may be irretrievable but that they shape us and give us strength to keep walking down the path we have chosen.
Quinn is a deeply conflicted main character who has to confront and accept some terrible things: the loss of a parent, news of a congenital defect in her unborn child, mental illness in a sibling. Her fears and her longing for what she can only have in her other life (her mother's presence) is so clear it reaches off the page and grabs the reader. She is a very sympathetic and complex character and the reader wants her to make the right choice, be in the life she should inhabit, even if that means unimaginable loss. The secondary characters round Quinn out, helping to develop and show her character fully. Her desperate grasp for a world where she doesn't have worries and cares so immense is completely understandable and real. The pacing of the plot is consistent and steady and the storyline itself is compelling. The themes of love and loss are well-drawn and realistic and the ending of the story is really quite perfectly written. I don't know that I'd want to see what any of my "other lives" look like but I enjoyed my glimpse into the possibility as presented here. This book would be a fantastic choice for reading groups given its premise and all the issues Meister raises.
For more information about Ellen Meister and the book visit her webpage and her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter: @EllenMeister.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.