Introducing a new series: The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews! Over the next 8 weeks, we will be presenting the reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. This week, Kate Hope Day’s If, Then.
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
If, Then, Kate Hope Day
Quick Synopsis: Four neighbors begin seeing alternate reality versions of their lives on the brink of a natural disaster.
If, Then is, as the title suggests, a book about what would happen if things were done differently. The book jacket makes it sound a lot more interesting than it is. When I first read it, I thought it was going to be about these characters that dealt with multiple scenarios that could have happened if they had done this instead of that. That was not the case. It was more about the characters seeing themselves in an alternate reality. It was less about it being an “if, then” situation and more about a “what if” situation. The common situation was about one of the characters who is pregnant and in one reality she has a girl and in another reality she has a boy.
This book was the first book that our class read so I saw this as a trial run to set up what was going to happen in the next few weeks. It was good to start with this book mainly because it was simple. The characters, in my opinion, were a bit stale. I was taught that as a writer the one question that a reader will ask when reading a story will be “so what?” which is a nicer way of saying, “why should I care?” This book made me constantly ask this question because the characters sounded as though they were just complaining about their problems. Not all of the characters deserve the depth (if you can call it that) that they receive. It is hard to feel sympathetic towards them because their problems seem very solvable.
Kate Hope Day’s novel, If Then, is a word play for the common “what ifs” that people often have about the possibilities of the future. However, this book is a poor attempt at showing the “what if” scenarios. The book jacket promises the everlasting effect of the natural disaster and alternate versions (or visions) of each of the characters: Ginny, Mark, Samara and Cass. The promise of a disaster—the central conflict—is a dud because three out of the four characters are not in the slightest aware of the natural disaster, except for Mark.
Day’s premise is interesting, as it is a strange and unknown phenomenon that is usually seen in movies and TV shows, somewhat near glances of the future. But this is the weak point in the story; it is never explained how this phenomenon works or how this connects to the natural disaster. Unfortunately, the piece seems more focused on the idea of this “other” reality than an actual plot. Much of the pages are filled with each character learning about themselves; however, most of these characters are flat.
If, Then by Kate Hope Day, was a novel with an intriguing title which lead me to believe it had promise. The back of the novel invites the reader to engage in a story that is invigorating and suspenseful. The book-jacket does the same as it talks about recent deaths, apparitions, mysterious text messages and increasingly disturbing visions. With the mentioning of these words and the weight that they carried, If, Then came across as a novel that was meant to have suspense and some thriller tendencies. Once reading the novel, these ideas were no longer prevalent. Instead of looking for things to create atmosphere and caution, the trajectory was changed to looking for immersion and captivation. It was not only the story, but the characters themselves. Ginny, the protagonist of this story, is meant to have the most character development and a substantial core that invites the reader into the story. Instead of inviting the reader, there was a disconnect between the reader and Ginny herself. Ginny’s character lacked in emotional development and her own drive to pursue the mystery at hand. Alongside Ginny is the development of her son and the children that he interacts with. The reasoning behind putting the children within the story is something that was never fully understood and one I still questioned now.
I was under the impression that this was a story relying on the idea of alternate dimensions. The idea that there is a world similar to our own, with people similar to us, that live their own lives due to the different choices they’ve made. Now of course, the idea of another dimension isn’t a new one; yet, I started out this novel hoping the author would deliver a different and more interesting take on it.
The novel held up in some areas but not so much in others. For example, the manner that the author handles each character’s visions into the parallel universe is understandable and perfectly intertwined into the narrative. For example, one second a character could just be sitting at a table drinking coffee when in the next second they see themselves doing the exact same thing except with a loved one by their side.
However, like most books there were some noticeable flaws and plot holes. The most asked question my classmates, TA, and I had: Why are these four characters important? We only focus on this one single neighborhood and these four characters: Ginny, Mark, Cass, and Samara. Our class asked: Why we didn’t see how others were affected? My class argued that this story could have held up greatly if it focused on multiple people in this town instead of just the four. In other words, it was a large-scale phenomenon that the author tried to condense into a small scale setting.
Despite the urgency Day hopes to create in each of the characters’ stories, there never truly is any real risk any character faces in If, Then, making every recurring character in the story feel insignificant and emotionally flat. Much of what each character does is not to gain or prevent the loss of something, rather each character performs as their parallel self would or simply exists as a different self in comparison their parallel selves. Ginny, unhappy with her marriage with Mark, begins to long for Edith, no differently than her parallel self who has already left Mark for Edith. Cass, who gives birth in one reality to a baby girl which permits her to continue her studies into counterfactuals and, coincidentally, the possibility of parallel dimensions, is pregnant in another and thus unable to continue her studies (she later gives birth to a baby boy). Essentially, despite the possibility to explore the themes of marriage, family, motherhood, and much more, each character instead holds no stake in anything in their lives because they do not operate freely. The lack of character agency means the characters serve no other purpose than to perform actions which propel the plot forward, which begs the question: why are these characters the main protagonists of the story?
It should be noted that though the characters did little in of themselves, they were able to establish a sense of meaningful connection with one another at times. While more could have been done to explore the theme of family, the interactions between Mark and his son did actually display some significance at times. Likewise, Sam’s reaction to her father having sold all of her departed mother’s possession were appropriate and representative of grief to an extent. Nonetheless, the lack of interaction with one another not only results in a lack of character relationships but also makes the significant moments feel less so, particularly because these moments become isolated and, as a result, inconsistent.
Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams